The Three-Pointer: Another Missed Opportunity

1. Wally's woes continue.

Dwane Casey's plan for this season is as simple as ham and eggs: Play monster defense to establish a new team identity, depressing the score enough so that KG on the low block and Wally shooting from 16 feet and out are pretty much all the offense you need to win most ballgames. And everything is going according to script, except that Szczerbiak can't knock down any jumpers.

Szczerbiak clanged five straight jumpers to open the game, destroying any chance the Wolves had of blowing Houston right out of gym early--it was 10-2 after the first three minutes. Finally he made a driving dunk off a dish from Kandi (who chose Yao for one of his five or six signature "tease 'em into sticking with me another two weeks with some inspired play" games), and then, whaddaya know, a long-range J from 21 feet. Second quarter, no shots in nearly 4 and half minutes of play. Third quarter, a couple of bunny makes (from 12 and 7 feet out) in four attempts.

Then fourth quarter, crunch time, KG the usual superhuman on the left block. Mr. Second Option? Splat. A wide open trey with less than three minutes to go and the Wolves down by one--not close. Then he passes up a couple of looks, finally hoisting another errant three with the Rockets up five and the game in desperation mode. A meaningless layup off a dish from KG cuts the lead to four with 12 seconds to go.

Szczerbiak finished 5-of-14, with only one make from beyond 12 feet. This career 50 percent shooter is now hitting 39 percent of his attempts this season; from three-point land, the percentage is 21 percent, versus 40 percent for his career. That is now two games where if Wally Szczerbiak does what he is supposed to do--what he has bitched he has been denied the chance to do for lo these many years--the Wolves win instead of lose. The first one was the opening road game against Seattle and the second one was Tuesday night. If 3-4 were suddenly to become 5-2, the Wolves' season would obviouslyh look a whole lot better. And yeah, sometimes it is that simple.

To his credit, Szczerbiak knows it is on him; he says flat out in locker room interviews that he's not fulfilling his role. Casey correctly maintains that he has "every confidence" in Wally. First of all, he really doesn't have a particularly appealing alternative at this time. Second, Szczerbiak's shot should eventually come along.

But it might be nice if Casey goosed it along a bit by playing Wally's favorite cohort, Anthony Carter, more than six damn minutes so that Wally might get the chance to run the floor and pick up some confidence layups in transition. In the paper the other day, Casey said KG and AC were the only two players who could really rely on thus far. True enough. Tonight, Eddie G. sucked out loud, getting housed at the hoop more than a couple of times by Stromile Swift in the second quarter as the Wolves' lead seeped down the drain, at least until a fat cluster of Rockets' turnovers (they really could have been had tonight) bumped the halftime lead back to eight. But hey, how about playing one of your very few reliable guys, especially given point two.

2. You can't preach defense and then play Troy Hudson over Jaric and Carter.

There must be some reason why Casey entrusted Hudson with the final 14 minutes and 43 seconds of the game--leaving both AC and Jaric on the bench as the Wolves turned a three-point lead into a five-point loss--but I can't think of it. Is it offense? Well, T-Hud's field goal percentage is the lowest of the trio, both overall and from beyond the arc. Against Houston, he had 4 assists and no turnovers in 22:23 while the Wolves went minus-10 as a team. Jaric had 7 assists and 2 turnovers--balanced, however, by two steals--in 25:37, during which the Wolves were plus-10 as a team against the Rockets. (AC barely had time to break a sweat, finishing with two points on 1-1 shooting for his only stats in six minutes of action.) For the season to date, the Wolves are now plus-24 over their opponent when Carter is on the court, plus-20 when Jaric plays, and minus-3 when Hudson is in the lineup.

Granted, Jaric can look jittery late in the game. But the Wolves went with a steady diet of KG in the low post and swing passes out to the perimeter in the 4th quarter against Houston. Hudson went 1-5 from the field in that final period. I've got to think Jaric could have done as well.

Down the stretch, Casey had KG surrounded by four guys--Hudson, Wally, Hassell, and Kandi--who couldn't hit shots or create them for anyone besides Garnett. The only basket of the 4th quarter not scored or assisted on by KG occurred in the first 23 seconds, when Eddie Griffin hit a long jumper after a pass from Ronald Dupree with Garnett on the bench. In that 4th quarter, with everyone and his brother draped on him, KG was 4-of-7; the rest of the team 4-of-11.

But here's the trump card: If you are going to announce that your team will live and die by defense, what the hell are you doing playing T-Hud at crunch time? You don't have to know very much about basketball to see that Jaric and AC are both clearly superior defenders, even against quick guards.

3. A grab bag of positives.

It was Ronnie Dupree's night to emerge from the scrub pile, further complicating Casey's effort to pare his rotation down to 9 players. Although he fouled out, Dupree's overall athleticism, defense on Tracy McGrady, and feistiness on the boards--something the Wolves, outrebounded yet again, desperately need--made this his best performance in a Wolves uniform.

Kudos also to Kandi, and let's see if I can bestow them without any snide commentary. No, I don't want him with the ball in his hands when it matters--he blew another easy shot late in the 4th quarter--but his aggressive play on Yao Ming (regular readers know I think the big man from China is fabulously overrated, but he's still a force to be reckoned with) earned him those crunch time minutes. Kandi also set a positive tone for the game by drawing early fouls on Yao en route to a 7-point opening period. He also blocked Yao's shot once and was called for a borderline goal-tend that swung the lead to Houston in the fourth quarter. If he provide similar energy and expertise in at least six of the next ten games, it will be time to take him seriously. Until then, a pat on the back to the big guy for the unexpected boost.

Trenton Hassell put his nose to breastbone with stifling results one more, this time versus Tracy McGrady, who hit only a third of his shots and had 5 turnovers. T-Mac did go to the line 13 times, but only three of those fouls were Hassell's, and the player who spelled him on McGrady, Ronnie Dupree, fouled out in 14 minutes. Dwane Casey praised his entire team's defensive effort, perhaps a little too much so, because it came right after the debacle in Denver, but Hassell was worthy of the kind words.

Last, and never least, Kevin Garnett gave the fans another superstar performance. The rebounds were down again, mostly because Juwan Howard was hitting that little midrange jumper and the size of Yao and Mutumbo prevented those snatched-from-the-weak-side boards that KG specializes in, via what Flip Saunders used to call his "inspector gadget arms." But he brought everything he had (you already knew that but let's never take it for granted, okay?), finishing his night by nailing a desperation trey to make it a one-possesson game, and then fouling out with 4.2 seconds left so the Rockets couldn't simply run out the clock.

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