The Three-Pointer: Dominant Front Line

1. Eddie fits right in Timberwolves stat man Paul Swanson is busy looking up the last time every member of the team's starting frontcourt scored at least 20 points. I bet it hasn't happened since the departure of Tom Gugliotta, if then. Getting 20 is a routine night at the office lately for both Wally Szczerbiak and Kevin Garnett, of course; the difference tonight was the 22 posted by emergency starter Eddie Griffin.

Eddie's teammates got him in rhythm by feeding him for a pair of layups and a dunk in the first period. The second quarter was devoted to rebounds and blocks. After halftime, confident now, he ordered up a pair of treys with a sidecar of two steals in the first four minutes of the third period. When the night was over, he had his 22 on 8-11 shooting, a dozen rebounds, four blocks (the sideline stat crew missed a fifth one), two steals, two assists, and about 8-10 altered shots in the paint. It wasn't as dominant as his 8-block performance against Utah earlier this month, but it was more significant because it was done within the fiber of the game, in a non-freakish manner that enabled his teammates and engendered trust. It also occurred at a time when the scales are falling off the eyes of Coach Dwane Casey when it comes to Michael Olowokandi, as they inevitably must. Casey isn't the first coach to check out Kandi's skill set, athleticism, and intelligence level, and figure he can make this guy a top ten NBA center, but unfortunately for Kandi, he is pretty close to being the last one with such illusions.

After the game, Casey announced that Griffin is his starting center "for now," and repeated it enough to convey the message that Eddie will hold on to the job if his solid play continues. That's no sure thing, of course, and there may be times, especially against the behemoths, when Kandi is the better option to start. But Griffin and the Wolves both needed Eddie to step up and deliver another example of his unique versatility and talent (Casey correctly noted that we hadn't seen it since the last Lakers game more than two weeks ago) and they got it. Good for you Eddie Griffin. Whatever demons you've been shadow-boxing recently, be it the pressures and frustrations resulting from your desultory play of late, or something else, it's nice to see them banished for at least one night.

2. Deck the boughs with hails of Wally A dreadful pun, I know, but something has to be done to acknowledge the phenomenonal December Szczerbiak has put together. In 13 games this month, he's burning the twine for a nice round 25 points per game, on 56.3% (120-213) shooting; numbers good enough to rank him 9th in the NBA in scoring and 2nd in accuracy if he'd done it since the beginning of the season. Better yet, Wally has become a more complete player this season--Casey unabashedly touted him alongside KG as an All Star candidate, and specifically cited his improved defense.

But perhaps his biggest improvement has been Wally's successful inclination to go strong to the hoop in the half-court game. After getting to the free throw line just 29 times in the first ten games, he's been there for 82 chances in his past 16 contests, a 5-per-game average that's way better than at any point in his career, without a corresponding increase in his turnovers. In fact, Szczerbiak's ball-handling miscues have probably declined this month.

But numbers alone don't tell the entire story. Tonight, KG fouled out with 4:37 to play. The Wolves were up 16, but the Sonics still had Ray Allen and a batch of other three point shooters. The lead was a shakier 13 with 4:09 to go. Wally lined up a 24-footer from the left baseline and nailed it. And then, after an Allen trey brought it back to 13, he went back to the same spot, up-faked the three, and drove hard along the baseline for a slam dunk in traffic, restoring the lead to 15 with 3:01 to play. Seattle coach Bob Weiss called timeout and emptied his bench.

On second thought, here are some numbers that orate pretty well. Szczerbiak finished with 14 fourth quarter points on 6-7 shooting. This December, he's hitting 65.1% of his 4th quarter shots, including 13 of 18 from three-point range. And he hasn't missed a 4th quarter free throw in 19 attempts. In seven of the last eight games, he's played more than 40 minutes and led the Wolves in scoring. Despite all this, when a television reporter mentioned Casey's all star tout and asked for a reaction in the locker room tonight, Wally simply replied that the team wasn't winning enough games for him to get that kind of consideration. Good answer.

3. Quick takes on Marko and McCants Seattle is hurting--figuratively and literally--at point guard this season, with Luke Ridenhour out and Flip Murray laboring with two fingers on his shooting hand that he dislocated Monday night. Yet that shouldn't completely tarnish the job Marko Jaric turned in. Jaric followed up his abominable performance against Phoenix by doling out ten assists with 3 steals and no turnovers while helping limit Murray to 1-12 shooting from the field. He also teamed with Griffin and Hudson to trigger the demi-fast break that enabled Wally to get out and score before the defense was set up in transition; or, failing that, enabling Garnett to set up on the block before receiving the ball. That's a big reason why Minnesota shot 58 percent for the game and 55, 53, 58, and 55 percent from the 1st through the 4th quarters.

And then there was Rashad McCants. Casey was pointedly adamant that McCants would continue to have to earn his minutes--"all the articles aren't going to force it," he said. Of course he wasn't referring to my hollering on this still relatively obscure little blog, but to the beat writers having permission to broach the issue of more time for McCants courtesy of a supportive statement of the rook by the resident superstar and most powerful person on the franchise, Kevin Garnett. And, not coincidentally, after his typically uneven and enticing 2nd quarter stint (which actually began late in the first quarter) McCants got a little 4th quarter taste tonight, and promptly coughed up the ball three times in 3:08. Casey was right to pull him when he did.

But Casey was also right to play him; regardless of whether it was because of KG's comments, Minnesota's then 12-point lead, or the realization that he couldn't keep moaning about someone stepping up to be the third scorer while keeping his explosive rookie stuck on the pine. All I want to see is McCants continuing to get those tastes, which are all going to be important learning experiences however he plays--and if he doesn't learn from them, well, that's a learning experience for the rest of us. Because if he gets two-thirds of the second half minutes that he now gets in the first half, I think it will accelerate his development and temper his attitude.

Finally, I appreciated that when Casey cleared his bench for the dregs of garbage time, subbing Dupree for Eddie and Tskita for Wally with 1:03 to play, that he kept AC on the bench. Out of respect, I presume.

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