The Three-Pointer: Just Win, Baby
1. 4th Quarter Warriors
In the four 4th quarters on this undefeated road trip, the Wolves outscored their opponents 114-78--and it would have been more dominant if they hadn't enjoyed a double-digit lead over Sacramento before the period started.
The latest victory, 84-74 over Portland, was a character-building comeback, the kind that puts some tang in a fan's enthusiasm. Yes, the Trailblazers are a desperately young ballclub ravaged by injuries, inexperience, and bad attitudes. But when the Wolves were down by 14 with 10:22 left to play, they could have easily rolled over and been content with a respectable 3-1 road trip. A trio of players prevented that from happening.
Start with Kevin Garnett, because he's always overlooked. After more than a decade, we have dubbed him a superstar and take brilliance for granted. LeBron James has probably ensured that KG will never again be regarded as the best player in the NBA--as anyone who was paying attention knew he was in both the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons--but he remains at worst in the top five because he combines the kind of incomparable skills from which legends are spread with the blue-collar grit, savvy, and attention to the "little things" that define an invaluable role player.
Tonight, the Wolves' comeback started almost immediately after KG came back into the game early in the 4th quarter. He proceeded to snuff out the Blazers' only reliable scoring threat, their 20-10 man, Zach Randolph, holding him to zero points, two rebounds, zero assists, zero blocks, and zero steals in the final ten minutes. Meanwhile, Garnett twice stole the ball from Randolph, and also registered 4 points, 7 rebounds, and a block shot in the period. It was imperative that the Wolves started scoring versus Portland, and they hung up 33 points in the 4th after getting just 51 through 3 quarters. But yielding only 13 points was equally vital. And the backbone of the crunch-time D was Garnett.
Move over to Wally Szczerbiak, who had a sublime road trip. It was Wally's aggressiion toward the hoop that helped keep the Wolves in the game in the first half, and his disappearance in the 3rd period coincided with his team's offensive swoon. But when the Wolves started making their run, Szczerbiak was the trigger man, thankfully forsaking the pass when none of his teammates had any offensive rhythm. He wended his way through two opponents for a nice leaner and then, in perhaps the most crucial play of the night with 6:22 left in the game, drove hard in the lane, drew the 6th foul of Portland center Joel Pryzbilla, and tossed in the layup with his left hand. Pryzbilla had been a monster all night, with play eerily reminiscent of Eddie Griffin's effort against Sac. Suddenly he was gone with half of the period left to go and creaky, ailing Theo Ratliff as the only legitimate big Portland could call upon. Wally's free throw drew the Wolves within 7. And right then the odds of a victory tipped toward Minnesota.
The final individual salute goes to Marko Jaric. With Troy Hudson out with fluid on the knee, the onus of scoring from the outside must have left a slightly deeper imprint on Jaric's brain matter, but he didn't flinch from the challenge, draining a couple of huge clutch three pointers, the kind that suck the air right out of an opponents' lungs. The first occurred just after Wally had fouled out Pryzbilla, and brought the Wolves within four points. The second whittled Portland's lead to two with just over four minutes left. As a final grace note, Jaric snuck over and re-stole a pass from Theo Ratliff (who had just stolen the ball from KG), laying the ball in for a four-point Wolves lead with less than three minutes to play. If he keeps this up, he's going to get a reputation as a 4th quarter titan.
2.A good game for Pete
A couple weeks back, somebody took a shot at the Wolves' TV announcing team. I must confess that I've always enjoyed Jim Peterson's analysis, and he was in fine form tonight. He had strong, accurate opinions, criticizing the Wolves' sluggish ball movement and openly wishing that Casey would bring Eddie Griffin back into the game in the 4th quarter. His use of statistics were on-point and revealing. Some were researched or gleaned from others--he noted that the Wolves were 6-0 when Wally scored 12 points or more; and 2-6 when he didn't--and others were grabbed on the fly, as when he said that Minnesota still didn't have any fast-break points midway through the third period.
He also used what viewers had just seen to instruct and illustrate. When Kevin Garnett avoided two leaping defenders and unsuccessfully tried to execute a reverse bank shot in the low post, Peterson said that KG could have drawn the contact and gone to the line, but that it was in his nature to avoid that and try to score the hoop. And when Wally dished to a wide-open Jaric on the first crucial 4th quarter trey, Pete cited Szczerbiak's dribble penetration as the key to freeing up Marko, underscoring his previous criticism that the team was moving their fee or the ball.
3.A cry from the peanut gallery: McCants over Frahm!
By now most of us should realize that we criticize Coach Dwane Casey at our peril. Casey obviously knows what he is doing. For instance, the Wolves missed Troy Hudson's feast-or-famine electricity during the first three periods tonight, and until the final quarter Anthony Carter did not have a particularly good game in Hudson's stead. Foolish or not, I'd still take my chances at crunch time more often with AC than with Huddy, but the fact of the matter is that Casey has gone with Hudson (when he's healthy) and that decision has mostly worked.
Which is all to say that even good, shrewd coaches make mistakes, and while playing Richie Frahm over Rashad McCants doesn't quite rank with Twins Manager Tom Kelly pinch-hitting Denny Hocking for Todd Walker, it's in that territory. If Frahm hits his wide open, outside jumpers, then Casey looks smart of course, but by those parameters, Casey hasn't looked smart since the season opener.
Richie Frahm is a fine looking player for Europe or the old CBA. Rashad McCants is going to be an offensive force to be reckoned with in this league. Yes, McCants's defense can be suspect. But I can't imagine him sabotaging the Wolves comeback much more egregiously than Frahm was with his wayward j's--he might even rise to the occasion. And if he doesn't, well, another humbling lesson to help him buckle down and play the kind of defense you want him to play. But give him a taste of these spirited comebacks, coach. You keep saying he's going to be a great player in this league someday. Whet that appetite. And ours. I've said all year that one of the beautiful things about this Wolves team is that their rebuilding strategy is also a pretty good contention strategy, provided you get a rhythm-building amount of minutes for McCants and Eddie Griffin, with at least a smidgen of uptempo action for Madsen and Carter on the side. Say goodbye to Richie Frahm.
UPDATE From an email by invaluable Wolves' stat guy Paul Swanson, here are the 4th quarter stats from the four-game road trip, which of course works out to be similar to a 48-minute game, won by Minnesota 114-78. It is revealing on a number of levels...
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