The Three-Pointer: Lesser Warriors

Thanks for your patience, folks. I'm been off cogitating on the fallout from KG's remarks last Sunday, for a story that will be on the cover of Wednesday's paper, and probably up online Monday or Tuesday.

1. Good enough to screw themselves? The Wolves finally played a team even lousier and more determined to lose in crunchtime than they are. Despite a few boneheaded plays down the stretch--Ricky Davis's pass to an out-of-bounds Marcus Banks and Banks's dish to a driving Justin Reed just as the 24-second clock was expiring stand out--they pulled it out in OT, 106-104 over the Warriors, thus moving ahead of Golden State in the standings.

Yup, Minnesota now has the 10th worst record in the NBA, and can't leapfrog any more teams if they want to keep their first-round pick rather than ship it to the Clips. The, ah, bad news is that they catch a break in the schedule over the last nine games, playing Atlanta twice, Charlotte once, a Memphis team that doesn't want to move up from its sixth seed twice, Utah at home, and Houston. Only the Spurs game at home and Indiana on the road look like certain losses (although San Antonio may have already wrapped up the number one seed in the West by then) and if the team goes 4-3 in the other seven, those 35 wins will almost certain cost them the pick. Right now they are one game behind Houston and two behind Chicago, both of whom have tougher schedules.

2. Looking on the bright side I've been ripping this team so long--and will again, in point 3--that I think it is only proper to point out that they've won 3 out of 4 and have some positives that should be duly noted. First, Mark Blount has been hotter with his jumper, and more active once, in that first Boston reunion game right after the trade, but today's game still ranks as perhaps his best non-shooting performance since coming to the Wolves. He pulled down a dozen boards (including five on the offensive glass) and had three steals and a pair of blocks. The five turnovers look ugly, but at least two and probably three were three-second calls, which I think stemmed from him actually trying to get position under the basket. In any case, he played like a big man, like a seven-footer. Minnesota outscored the Warriors 48-38 in the paint and his 39:27 on the court had something to do with that.

The distribution of shots among the five starters was remarkably even. I'm not sure that's a great thing--if KG isn't leading this team in either shot-attempts or assists by a fairly significant margin, something is askew--but when I asked the coach he seemed to like it and the team got 106 points in 53 minutes which is 96 per 48, which ain't bad offense. Anyway, I noticed at halftime that Davis had 9 attempts, KG 8 and Blount-Banks-McCants all had 7. They finished with Banks leading Minnesota with 17 attempts, Blount and Davis had 16, and KG and McCants had 14.

Rather than being a ball hog, Banks actually should have called his number on penetration a little more often, as he obviously was too quick for Derek Fisher and the Warriors's interior D simply isn't very snug or gritty. Best of all, Banks held to Casey's dictum of pushing the ball, leading the team to a 22-7 advantage in fast break points, with a team-high 7 assists to go with his 24 points on 10-17 from the field.

That vibe between KG and Rashad McCants is growing stronger with the rook's inclusion into the starting lineup. (Indeed, the 44:32 McCants logged is almost certainly a career high.) KG had three dimes for the game and all went to McCants. In addition, McCants actively seeks out touches for KG much more often than the three ex-Celtic starters, something that Flip Saunders used to preach rather harshly in the past. When I asked him about it after the game, McCants essentially gushed about Garnett's passing ability and explained that if you get KG the rock, he'll get it back to you in better shape than you had it before. The rook's appreciation of this essential truth will help him enormously next year and beyond. I wish it would rub off on a few other folks but we're keeping this portion of the trey positive. so let's end on the image of the seven-foot superstar with the $20 million contract diving on the floor in an effort to save the ball for his team with 1.7 seconds left in OT and the Wolves up 2. Casey called it "the most impressive play of the game" but my unabashed admiration for Garnett includes an expectation that I'll see that kind of effort from him every time out.

3. My Ricky Davis problem Ricky Davis has the quickness to defend people. Judging from the quality of his passes, he has the basketball intelligence and court vision to be a good anticipator and tactician on defense, cutting off angles and learning opponents' tendencies. But Ricky Davis is a lazy defender, one who likes to gamble on the flashy steal if he bothers to kick it up a notch at all. Most of the time he is content to get beaten off the dribble and let somebody else help out, or simply hope that the man misses the open jumper he has allowed. It happened constantly against Golden State, first with Jason Richardson and then with Michael Pietrus.

Davis simply doesn't put forth the effort to play defense. It is insulting, and, because he averages well over 40 minutes per game, very damaging to his team. He often defends with his hands instead of his feet, rarely stay with his man very long either vertically or horizontally on the court--on penetration he'll assume a big man will be there to pick him up, a curious attitude, given how long he's had Blount as a teammate. When the opponent is using a pick, he usually allows himself to get picked or works under it and permits the shot. Off the perimeter dribble from side to side, same thing--he'll let another man take over after awhile. Sometimes that is what the defense calls for, for Davis does it more than anyone on the team. It is the kind of play that makes an ostensibly great team good, an ostensibly food team fair, and an ostensibly fair team poor. Yeah, Davis stripped J-Rich a couple of times when the Warrior was driving into traffic. But the amount of open jumpers Minnesota permitted today was unbelievable, especially in the 3rd quarter.

Unfortunately, just as KG's all-out hustle can be the example that buoys a team, Davis's dogging it can be contagious enough to sink a squad. There are certainly times when Blount and Banks pick up that scent and literally watch people blow past them, and, sadly, it happens with McCants occasionally as well. It was weird hearing Casey begin his post-game press conference in high praise of McCants's D on Mike Dunleavey, who shot just 2-13 from the field, but McCants affected maybe 3 or 4 of those 13. Almost the entire game, various Warriors were *wide open* and simply couldn't convert.

When I asked Casey if maybe his team got lucky with that cold shooting, he agreed, but then said there were only a handful of times, and those when the Wolves were playing zone, when Minnesota didn't contest the jumpers. Does he just assume we aren't paying attention, or is he so mentally upbeat for his squad that he has to wait for the tape to see how easily opponents can usually get what they want versus the Wolves? The Warriors did--they just couldn't execute it, or finish it, when they got it.

So here I am again wishing Casey would be more honest with us in his disapproval of his players, or at least not feed us what feels like a line of bullshit. But maybe some people just have a certain way of behaving that is in keeping with their character. From Day One Casey has proven to be a guy who wouldn't even think of ratting out his players, who doesn't bait officials, or bark back when Charles Barkley is calling his team into question, or bitch about anything when the heat is on. When owner Glen Taylor began to not so subtly rip his performance last week, Casey calmly said he was fair game for criticism, even as KG protested.

I have probably ripped Casey as much or more than anyone in the media this year. I am comfortable with every bit of it, and still think he has frequently been overmatched in his rookie season. And while I'm pretty sure that he doesn't read me very often, if at all, the tone and tenor of my questions can't be mistaken on many occasions.

Which is all to say that after the game as I was exiting the Target Center and it's raining pretty steadily outside, I hear someone yelling my name from about 20 yards away. I look over and at first just meet the eyes of some aluminum can collector by the curb about five yards away, who simply points toward a car in the street. Coach Casey's at a red light and he's got his window rolled down and he's asking me if I need a ride. I didn't, but I appreciated the gesture. And whatever I think of his coaching prowess, I've never waivered from my impression that as human being he is a man of class and dignity in ways that have as much to do with compassion and integrity as manners and social graces.

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