The Three-Pointer: A Team in Pieces

1) Many players, not enough roles In tonight's 106-92 loss to the Nuggets (and the game wasn't that close), the Wolves again proved to be better on paper than they are on the court. Fifteen games into the season, this is a squad where the roles and the substitution patterns are simply too whimsical. Do the substitution patterns cause the pieces to be ill-fitting, or are the ill-fitting pieces fostering too many substitution patterns? Whether it is the chicken or the egg, the team is underachieving.

The superstar, Kevin Garnett, has always loved being involved in the passing offense and has always tolerated banging with the big boys for blocks and rebounds. This year he is once again among the top ten in rebounding and now out of the top 50 in assists, ranking third on his own team in the latter category, at just 3.4 assists per game. Tonight, KG was up against a couple of undersized wide-bodies who just love to bang and board, Eduardo Najera and Reggie Evans. In the first half, the duo combined for a whopping 18 rebounds, half of them on the offensive glass. Garnett had two rebounds. That's why the Wolves were minus 8 (5-13) in second chance points and minus 11 (45-56) on the scoreboard. Coming out of intermission KG asserted himself on the boards with three rebounds in less than three minutes, and, not coincidentally, became more of a playmaker in the half-court offense, doubling his halftime assist total with a pair of dimes out to Mike James for treys from the top of the arc. These were alternated by layups from KG and Trenton Hassell, whittling Denver's margin down to 5 with 9:11 to play in the third period. Denver called timeout, adjusted, and forced two of KG's 7 turnovers, plus one from Mark Blount, in boosting their lead back to 11 over the next three minutes.

The guy who leads the team in assists, Ricky Davis, is indeed a gifted passer, but he doesn't always make good decisions. The dreadful end of tonight's third period began when Davis was dribbling out on the perimeter, ostensibly milking the clock for the last shot. Except that his shot was both hurried, without his feet set, and delivered too soon, enabling Denver to grab the rebound and race down in time to nail a three-pointer before the buzzer, pushing Denver's lead to its largest of the night, 89-67, with just 12 minutes to play.

It was yet another in a string of putrid third quarters delivered when the Wolves' starters play the majority of minutes. The Wolves starters, simply don't seem to play well together. One reason is because Davis among them: Tonight he was a team-worst minus 14 during his 37:20 of playing time, making him a team worst minus 36 during the Wolves' current three-game losing streak. Davis actually played better defense than usual, yet still allowed streak shooter J.R. Smith to get plenty of open looks and a few transition slam dunks. Davis did get to the free throw line 8 times--the rest of the team combined for 4 more--but continues to look like a player better suited to be a 6th Man, able to provide a spark in many ways, but slotted in with various rotations and capable of being lifted if the magic isn't there. At the very least, can we all agree that Ricky Davis and Kevin Garnett haven't even equalled the sum of their exceptional talents when together on the court?

And what about the other roles? For two games on the road, rookie Randy Foye was a 4th Quarter magic man. Tonight, with the Wolves down by 19 with 5:46 left to play, Coach Casey replaced him with Davis. Can we all agree that the more Foye plays, the better he will become? If this squad continues to lose three for every two it wins, the progress of Foye and Craig Smith will be second only to KG's (swan song?) majesty as a gate attraction come February and March. Is Ricky Davis going to make up 19 points in less than six minutes? No, if anyone had recently given any indication of pulling off such a feat, it was Foye. And for that matter, what was Garnett doing still in the game? I hope he wasn't going for his tenth rebound so as to secure another double-double for the stat sheet. Maybe it was because Carmelo Anthony was also inexplicably in the action--and got poked in the eye in the last 30 seconds.

But I digress... Roles. Justin Reed and Eddie Griffin were accorded nearly seven minutes apiece tonight, and all dozen players on the roster logged some time. But what's the rhyme or reason? Yeah, I've got the 20-20 hindsight specs on, but by now isn't this team supposed to be close to figuring out which player combos seem to gel best, and fostering those synergies? About the only thing we know is that the starting lineup has been a constant, plays as a unit for the majority of the first and third quarters, and almost always puts the Wolves in a hole.

2) Scolding the Hassell haters, and Marko's marvelous adventure It's been great sport to denigrate the play of Trenton Hassell over the past week or two. I imagine in large part that is because Hassell's contribution rarely registers on the stat sheet, and because Trenton called himself out last week, claiming that Marko Jaric should start in his place.

Hassell's offensive rhythm has clearly been off thus far this season, but I've also heard more than one person claim that his defense has likewise taken a step backward. Maybe so, but in terms of on-ball tenacity, it is still a damn sight more effective than anybody else on the team can muster. I didn't see a five-game stretch in mid-November, but the other night in Houston, Hassell limited Tracy McGrady to 2-10 shooting from the field when they were in the game together. Tonight, defending Carmelo Anthony, the NBA's second leading scorer at 31 ppg, Hassell's defensive prowess was even more striking. In the 23:08 Hassell and Melo were on the court together, Melo scored 8 points--a pair of free throws and a fast break dunk in the second period, and a pair of jumpers during the fourth period when the game was out of reach. In the remaining 19:15 that Anthony was on the court being guarded by somebody else, he racked up 27 points. Despite playing only 28:45, Hassell also led the Wolves with 5 assists. His plus/minus was zero, in a game in which the Wolves were a minus 14.

When Hassell picked up his second foul just 4:08 into the first period, it brought Marko Jaric off the bench. Over the next 11 and a half minutes, Marko took fans on a highly entertaining ride that epitomized the distinctive strengths and weaknesses that make him such a unique performer.

He strolled on to the court with his jersey on backwards, his name emblazoned on his chest instead of his back. As he hurriedly pulled it off, reversed it and put it on, he was whistled for a delay of game penalty. Then Mark Blount blocked a Najera shot and Jaric retrieved it and send a beautiful pass to James in transition for the layup. Then two straight times when Denver was in its half-court offense, Marko tried to front Anthony in the low post, only to have the point guard deliver a pair of alley-oop slams for Melo. Soon afterwards, Marko had a clear path to the hoop, drove and missed everything on his banked layup, then committed a foul in the backcourt trying to steal the rebound from his opponent. Then, in the space of 20 seconds, he nailed a 21-foot jumper, stole a pass from Marcus Camby, and fed Davis for a fast break dunk. Then he blew another layup. He ended his crazy-quilt first period by tossing up a Hail Mary half-court shot that banked into the hoop just before the buzzer sounded. Before he sat down three minutes into the second period, Marko clanged a slam dunk after receiving a beautiful feed from Craig Smith, then filched two more Nuggets passes, turning the second steal (and his third of the 11-minute stint) into a fast break culminating in his layup on an assist from Davis.

3) A pair of coaching moves that furrow the brow With 51 seconds to go in the first half and the Wolves down 8, Casey subbed in rookie Craig Smith for KG. It wasn't his first rest--Garnett had already gotten a brief respite at the end of the first quarter; and anyway, he had the entire intermission to catch his breath. It wasn't a desire to keep KG out of foul trouble--he only had 2. With KG out, the Wolves didn't make a field goal, although Davis did sink a pair of free throws. The Nuggets countered with five points off a pair of Anthony jumpers (Hassell was on the bench beside KG) and went into the locker room up 11. Now, was KG's benching a message by the coach for the lackluster rebounder mentioned earlier? Don't know. But Garnett did glare at Casey as he went to the sideline.

The second questionable substitution occurred with 3:17 left to play in the third period and the Nuggets up by 14, 75-61. Along with the two rooks, Foye and Smith, replacing the two vets, James and Blount (by the way, James and Foye again almost never played together in the backcourt), Casey subbed in Justin Reed for Hassell. Reed, who hadn't played since last weekend's win over the Clippers, and who has logged only 32 minutes this entire season, had the job of guarding Anthony. Now Reed is a diligent, aggressive defender, which also makes him foul-prone. And the Wolves were already in the penalty by the time he came into the game. Do you really want a rusty, foul-prone defender on a deadly scorer with your team in the penalty in the waning minutes of the third quarter of a game already slowly slipping out of reach? Reed committed only one foul, which Melo converted into two made FTs, but Anthony added five more points and the Nuggets outscored the Wolves 14-6 in that 3:17 span to boost their lead to 22. Ballgame.

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