The Three-Pointer: Breaking Through
1. Vintage KG Kevin Garnett was relentless tonight against the Clippers, and the dominant reason why the Wolves ended their 6-game losing streak with a 101-87 victory. The key to KG's performance was that he never really let up: He tied his season-high of 32 points by scoring 12-4-8-8 respectively in the four quarters. He pocketed two steals in every period except his lone one in the third quarter, propelling the Clips to their highest turnover count of the season, 26, and the difference in points created off turnovers between the two teams had to be greater than the Wolves 14 point margin. On a team beseiged by inconsistency, Garnett's reliability in this contest cannot be overstated (although I'm trying). Playing their fifth game in 7 nights and exhausted by a coaching change, losing, and the rigors of the West Coast road trip, it was vital that the team get off to a good start, and KG was the early sparkplug grabbing four of his 9 rebounds and doling out two of his three assists in lifting his team to a nine-point lead in the first quarter that held up until late in the third period and set a positive, energy-enhancing tone for the entire game. Ditto in the 4th quarter, when the Wolves had fallen behind by a point with 6:36 to play and the specter of their previous two close losses looming large, KG teamed with the Wolves' other four veteran starters, rarely in together at crunchtime, for a 21-6 run to close out the game. This crucial spurt was keyed by defense: From the time Garnett reentered the game with exactly 8 minutes left to play, the Clips managed just one field goal. A loss tonight would have sent the Wolves three behind .500 and two games in back of the Clips for the 8th and final playoff spot. Instead they are now tied for 8th and hold the tie-breaker advantage over the Clips (2-1 in head-to-head competition, which will remain in effect because the teams aren't scheduled together the rest of the season). A loss also would have sent the team back home to a surly crowd, saddled with a 7-game losing streak and looking at a schedule that includes Phoenix next, and Dallas and Houston on the road during their ensuring five games. When things get this bleak, a club relies on its superstar for sustenance, if not resurrection. Garnett delivered that in Los Angeles.
2. Mike James Has A Pulse It is not a good sign that James has very slowly but very surely begun to revitalize his play in almost direct inverse proportion to fan tolerance of his presence in the lineup. Only when even his die-hard supporters began to lose their grip on the bandwagon--and embrace the reality that James had already punted pretty near half the season--did this career backup begin to rustle with energy and exert some MIA floor leadership, including proactive passing and defense. But better very very late than never, I guess. In the past five games, James has amassed a very respective ratio of 20 assists to 6 turnovers. For the second time in Randy Wittman's three-game stint as coach, he played the bulk of crunchtime and was part of that closing surge that ensured the victory, finishing with 17 points. For the past few games, he has been hitting from outside in the first period, a welcome tone-setter that stretches defenses and enables his teammates to operate smoothly in the paint. Tonight, perhaps because he was guarding non-scoring forward Quinton Ross closer to the hoop while Ricky Davis was on Sam Cassell to start the game, he worked the boards more than usual and finished with 7 rebounds. It is difficult to know how close James is or was to ceding his starting position to Randy Foye, but any combination of Wolves losses, tentative floor play caused by a lack of confidence, and that awful matador D we saw for most of the first half would almost compel this squad to make a switch. What nobody knows is if these doldrums were a long hump that James has slowly surmounted, or if he believes in his core, in a place where his desire and his talent can't reach, that he's a backup who doesn't deserve the commitment the Wolves have extended him. It is one of several mini-dramas that will be acted out and resolved as the team moves into the make-or-break, late-winter stretch of the NBA season.
3. The Swingman Glut: McCants Instead of Davis and What Happens to Marko? For the first time this season, Rashad McCants suited up to play tonight, more a reward for his dedication to rehab than any plan to utilize him for this game, apparently. But it shows McCants is very very close, and it was hard not to feel my pulse quicken with excitement when I heard Jim Petersen broach the possibility of McCants stepping into the shooting guard spot while Ricky Davis slips into 6th Man status at some point this season. Is J-Pete saying this because he has inside knowledge and/or because the move makes so much sense (pending McCants's return to health and rhythm)? Tonight, Davis seemed to be longing to join the Clips' rather extensive corps of underachivers (T Thomas, Livingston, Kamen, Mobley), clanking a bevy of outside j's early and committing a series of ostentatiously foolish turnovers in the 3rd and 4th quarter. On one possession he dribbled down to the baseline, made a half-hearted attempt to drive it, jumped in the air well before he was near the hoop and wound up contorting himself as he tossed a bad pass to the opponents while falling out of bounds. Other miscues included force-feeds into the paint to a clearly covered teammate, and lazy passes-cum-opponents'-layups of the sort that landed him on the bench in that infamous Detroit overtime loss at home. The word often used to describe Davis is "enigma" and it is code for "who can understand why he pisses away his talent so frequently?" The great thing about the 6th man role is that if Davis decides tonight's the night to stink like a rotten fish, he won't be a great distraction or disruption to the prevailing sub rotation. And after all this talk about how Wittman is a straight shooter, sets expectations and demands accountability, it should be noted that Davis still led the team in minutes played tonight with 39:45. Meanwhile, Marko Jaric had his second noteworthy defensive game in a row, albeit while getting rung up for five fouls in 19:50 guarding foul magnet Corey Maggette. In addition to having hands gifted for steals, Jaric also seems to be a very nice complement to Foye in the backcourt, mostly because he can handle the ball and push the pace to trigger controlled transition, but doesn't mind taking a backup role to Foye when it comes to setting up the half-court sets. Jaric doesn't need very many touches, especially compared to Davis, McCants, and Foye, which makes him valuable when grooming the rook. Even so, if that Jaric for Nazr deal with Detroit is still dangling, the Wolves should stop hesitating--unless they can move Davis for Maggette or something equally beguiling. KG-Blount-Madsen-Smith still is one body too few when it comes to beef in the paint.
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