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The Three-Pointer: No Offense Taken

1) Messing with James As the guy who wrote last week about Wolves coach Dwane Casey being on the hot seat, I understand his short-term priority of winning games now by any means necessary. And I understand that Mike James has lurched out of the gate bereft of the acute court vision, accurate jump shot, energetic defense, and overall mental toughness that Minnesota expected when they signed him this summer.

But let's get some perspective here: the deal was for four years, at a reported $23.5 million, and the Wolves have now played a grand total of 13 games with James at the point. To be waffling on such a significant investment after such a short amount of time makes no sense. As I mentioned in my last trey, James hasn't exactly enjoyed the sort of career that gives him sustenance when the coach starts diddling with his minutes. Until this year's training camp, he'd never really had a ballclub commit to him as anything more than a stopgap solution in the backcourt. And now, after a fitful start, he's got to be wondering if he'll become this year's version of Marko Jaric, hounded off the court by his own demons. One would assume it is Casey's job to ensure that doesn't happen. But playing a backcourt of Randy Foye and Troy Hudson in the 4th quarter against the Rockets certainly greases any self-doubts James must now be quietly but furiously tamping down in his psyche. Wolves analyst Jim Peterson and I don't always agree--I don't worship the water Mark Blount apparently walks on in Peterson's universe, for example--but his comments about the daftness of subbing Huddy for James when Foye also deservedly needs to grab large hunks of playing time were dead-on in my opinion.

Of course Casey could mount a strong defense for his action merely by playing a tape of last night's game. At least twice in the first quarter, Ricky Davis set James up in perfect shooting rhythm only to have the point guard, who finished near the top of the league in 3-point shooting percentage last year, clang the jumper. And forget about James providing a spark for others by breaking down the defense with penetration dribbles or executing the pick-and-roll with the sort of efficiency that ensure his teammate an open lane or space to shoot the J. And his defense, folks, is woefully inconsistent. Only Rafer Alston's cockeyed shooting eye (and the fact that Shane Battier was having a field day tying his shoes and calling his mom before burying three pointers from the corner on Ricky Davis) prevented him from being torched in the first half last night. According to popcornmachine.net, James was -11 in 24 minutes against the Rockets, while Foye and Huddy were +4 and +3 respectively. (Then again, James and Foye were never paired in the same backcourt, something that would seem to benefit both players.) So, yes, Casey has some justification for his action. But he also bears some responsibility for feeding the monster of James's uncertainty. And it is waaay too soon in James's four-year contract for that to be happening.

2) Youth must be served Anyone who watches the Wolves already understands the energy boost that occurs when Foye and/or Craig Smith enter the game. What's only slightly less obvious is how intelligent both these rookies have been. I don't know what was more impressive last night, Foye taking it right to Yao Ming and lofting a teardrop over the Lego-headed Giant, or Foye dribbling hard to the corner and reversing the ball back Huddy for an open trey that he stroked. I still have doubts about Foye's ball-handling ability, but that doesn't prevent him from manning the two-guard position and making Ricky Davis a contender for 6th Man of the Year. Wolves stat guru Paul Swanson informs me that the Thrillanova from Villanova has shot 13-18 from the field, hit all five free throws, and tossed in 5 rebounds and 3 assists with his 34 points over the past three fourth quarters of action.

Smith's ascent into the NBA firmament is even more surprising. Everyone sees the gorgeous contrast between his kissably soft floater and rock-hard rebounding and defense down near the hoop. But even more exciting is the maturity of his game, his decision-making on defensive rotations and shot selection (after some gunner giddiness in his first couple of breakout games), and his sneaky jousting and clutching when contesting for position. And to top it off, both of these rooks run like banshees all 94 feet of the court. Isn't that what Casey preached as a team identity this season, the explosive "flow" offense in transition and waistband-tight defensive pressure. Smith may be undersized, but I don't see him flinching in the paint, even when Yao is the foe.

The question becomes, then, who sits? Well, Eddie Griffin is already a casualty and it is hard to limit Blount anymore than is already occurring. (I'll give Peterson this: Blount is physically and mentally giving his all to this club this season. And while he'll never be a quality rebounder or defender, he has upgraded those aspects of his game enough to warrant 20-28 minutes a game.) I suppose you could bump Kevin Garnett's time down to around 33 minutes, as Kevin McHale advised during his brief stint as coach. One of this blog's smart commenters proposed a Blount-Smith-KG front line, but that could work only against certain ballclubs and actaully goes against the NBA trend of forsaking size and spreading the hardwood with scampering athletes. And that means less minutes for the Hassell-Jaric tandem. I remain a Hassell defender. Shit, he held Tracy McGrady to 2-10 FG during their time together on the court, and his minutes have already been cut. (Time for my standard anti-Davis rant: Why are Hassell and James being deprived of playing time for poor performance while Davis, who was -9 last night and delivered yet another sorry-ass effort on defense, especially early in the game, is second only to Garnett in PT?) And Jaric, as he did even last year, continues to pile up impressive plus/minus figures because he does the important little things like clog lanes on defense, hustle in transition, set picks, and move the ball.

Bottom line, Smith probably isn't going to get more than 20-22 minutes a night right now unless Mark Madsen never rises from the bench to do anything but cheer (not that unpleasant an option, but in fairness to Mad Dog, he too has been effective in his mercifully short stints this year), KG is cut back to 33 minutes, and the surfeit of swingmen cough up an extra 5 or so minutes.

3) KG's typical excellence and other quick hits Let's not overlook Garnett's superb game last night--9-15 FG, and 11 rebounds to go with his 25 points. The Rockets wisely deploy a jackrabbit power forward with a constant motor in Chuck Hayes to steal rebounds and beseige opponents necessarily focused on Yao, and KG did allow Hayes 11 boards and a few open looks for that reason. But by the same token, he didn't shirk from battling Yao in the paint on various defensive rotations and got a fair amount of his points down low as well. As his teammates continued to misfire, KG was a beacon of offensive consistency--the team's second-highest scorer, Randy Foye with 11, had only 2 heading into the 4th quarter.

The best reason for playing Hudson is how much Garnett seems to enjoy his presence on the court. KG is often giving Huddy encouragement and the two do have a rhythm on the high pick-and-roll some this season. All that said, there just isn't enough room for Hudson in this rotation.

You want the glass half-full? The Wolves gave two of the NBA's best teams all they could handle, managing tie scores deep into the 4th quarter in back-to-back games on the road. Half empty? They never held a lead in either game, and, aside from Foye, Garnett, and Smith, seemed to be the less aggressive as well as the less talented team in both contests.

Yes, Houston plays great Van Gundy defense, but the Wolves lack imagination and rhythm in their half-court offensive sets. Most of the time, it looks like they are freelancing, yet one of the few virtues of that, trips to the foul line from penetration, isn't happening. Overall, the margin of error is very thin: The club is 0-5 when shooting below 45%, and only 6-3 when shooting over 45%.

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