The Three-Pointer: Strength in Numbers
1. Surging The Wolves blistered Memphis Friday night with their best opening period of the season. From the opening tap, all five starters hustled like it was a playoff game and not a midseason road tilt against a last place team. Twelve seconds into the game, Mark Blount was diving on the floor trying to retrieve a turnover. Mike James thoroughly outplayed Chuckie Atkins, Craig Smith rotated for superb help D after Blount left early with two fouls, and Kevin Garnett and Ricky Davis put on a show with a combined 19 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks. When the whistle sounded, Minnesota had shot 62 percent from the field, had gone to the line 9 times, corralled a whopping 17 rebounds, and led 36-19, a cushion they held without undue jeopardy for the rest of the game.
The next night at home against New Jersey, the Wolves snatched back a loseable game with their best 4th quarter of the season. Mark Blount frequently ventures out to the perimeter to disrupt New Jersey's outside passing game. Trenton Hassell, quiet with 4 points when the quarter begins, erupts for 9, ambushing the Nets for their inattention. Randy Foye assembles a delectable combo platter: a jumper, a layup, 4 converted free throws, 3 dimes, a steal and zero turnovers against Jason Kidd and company. Garnett is huge, choosing to rage at no one and everyone when the quarter began and the Wolves were down 5, willing this 8th quarter in the back-to-back to be as fine as the first quarter the previous evening. And when it's over, KG's dozen points have fueled Minnesota's 37-21 advantage, spangled with 69 percent shooting and 15 free throws.
Friday it was the early knockout punch. Saturday it was the crunchtime grit. Two games that needed to be won if this team is to be considered a bona fide playoff contender. And two games that were won.
What did these two surging 12 minute-spans have in common? Answer that and you'll begin to define the ever-elusive "identity" of this suddenly successful ballclub. It's weird: The Wolves aren't hanging their hat on either their offensive or defensive prowess. They're not monster rebounders, slick passers, bruisers, lightning quick, deadeye long-distance shooters, or anything else. So how or why are they 6-1 in the month of January?
Begin with Garnett. His average numbers for the month or January are phenomenal: 27 points, 14 boards, 4.7 assists, and two and half blocks per game. He is enjoying easily his best season in three years, slightly down from his peak four-five years (which culminated in his MVP season) only because his defense isn't quite as rigorously reliable as it was in his prime, mostly because he tries to help as much as ever and is a split-second slower, and also suffers a few more fatigue-induced mental lapses. But that's praising with faint damns, because, on balance, his D remains very good to great.
If you're looking for a recognizable identity then, I'd say it is KG and His Merry Men, or, Strength in Numbers. I don't know if this is a more talented squad than the 50-win crews Flip Saunders used to assemble, but I do think there is more depth in the sense that any one or two of six guys on this squad--the rest of the starters and the two rooks--can step up and play the kind of second-banana/third-wheel roles that parlay the superstar's leadership into victories. Against Memphis is was obviously Ricky Davis, steamrollin' the Grizz for 27-7-7 and pretty decent defense, especially early when it mattered, with Mike James chipping in 16 points and 7 assists for third wheel status. Versus NJ the next night, I'd crown Foye the Prince to KG's King, and give a third-wheel shout-out to Blount, who is about far more than just the sweet jumper lately.
The point is, just as Garnett stuffs the stat sheet from left to right, the Wolves have a bevy of multi-talented performers who might ring up 20 points one night, dish 8 assists the next, and play shutdown D the next. When at least two of those supporting sextet rise up, the Men are Merry and a W is almost always secured.
2. These are Not Flip's Timberwolves Whether you liked his style or not (I was a pretty big fan), Flip Saunders had a very recognizable M.O. Above all, Flip favored a crisp passing offense involving multiple sets that contained ever evolving options for each play in the half-court schemes. It produced gorgeous playmaking that yielded a surfeit of open midrange jumpers, many assists, few turnovers, a lack of treys and free throws, and defense that rarely seemed desperate to deny penetration to the hoop.
The most obvious difference with Dwane Casey's Wolves is that the squad plays fundamentally better team defense, especially on the perimeter, showing hard on the pick-and-rolls, but also in the interior rotations by the big men in the paint and along the baseline.
But what is more striking to me lately is the willingness of these Wolves to eschew the pretty pass and put the ball on the floor for a drive to the hoop. Under Flip, Minnesota had almost no chance of victory is they scored fewer field goals than their opponents, because they were always murdered in the trey count and at the free throw line. Now, when an opponent lacks an imposing presence in the paint, the Wolves take it to the rack. Against the Yao-less Rockets they were out-fieldgoaled, 39-32 but made up for it with a huge advantage at the foul line: 34-40 to 12-19 for the Rockets, and the second-half differential at the line was 22-2! Saturday night against the Nets, same deal: outscored in field goals, 40 to 37; but dominant at the line, 32-35 compared to NJ's 11-14. For the season, Minnesota is plus 38 in FTA, and plus 59 in FTM, overcoming its minus 29 in points from the field (due to a big disadvantage in three pointers). You have to go back to 1997-98--Tom Gugliotta's All-Star year--for the last time the Wolves shot more free throws than their opponents.
Part of the credit goes to Casey's defense: sound position D reduces FTs (San Antonio is permitting fewer of them than anyone in the NBA). But the offensive philosophy is also a factor. Garnett is going to the line at a higher rate than at any point in his 11 year career, and the rooks Foye and Smith are among the team's top players in free throws per minute played.
The flipside (pardon the pun) of this is more turnovers. Saunders hated turnovers and sacrificed free throws and penetration to reduce them. I know Casey constantly harps on turnovers too, but thankfully, he doesn't walk his talk to the point where he discourages drives to the hole. One reason KG's free throws are up is because he's wheeling and dealing and fighting for position in the low block instead of settling for the fadeaway. Consider these juxtapositions: in this season's 28 2006 games, Garnett committed more than five turnovers just once and grabbed more than 4 offensive rebounds just once. In the 7 games since the calendar flipped into 2007, KG has hauled in more than 4 offensive rebounds three times, and committed more than 5 turnovers thrice. Do the turnovers hurt? Well, they're not a good thing, of course, but the Wolves are 6-1 in 2007. More to the point, their record is 13-11 when they commit fewer than 18 turnovers, and 6-5 when they commit 18 or more.
3. Quick hits
The book on Bracey Wright is that he's an NBA shooter in a 'tweener, NBDL body. But there he was again in the middle of the Wolves crucial surge against the Nets Saturday night, registering a plus 13 in less than six minutes of action subbing for Ricky Davis. The reason? Wright fulfills his defensive assignments to the max. From 23 seconds to go in the 3rd to 6:49 left in the 4th, the Wolves outscored NJ 17-4. That's four points allowed in 5:34. That doesn't mean I want him iso on Vince Carter, Kidd, or Jefferson when the Wolves need a defensive stop. But like Mark Madsen, another plus/minus stat star, Wright hustles on defense and knows his assignments. Sometimes it's amazing how effective such a simple formula like that can be. Which makes the demise of Eddie Griffin all the more tragic. And stupid.
The debate over Blount being a lousy defender is also pretty well settled, at least until the big dude with the boxing glove for a lower lip reverts to his old ways. Right now he plays the best pick and roll of all the Wolves' bigs, and has become more nasty and aggressive down in the paint. The result is productive crunchtime minutes even if his jumper isn't automatic.
I talked about second bananas and third wheels, but Minnesota is even getting good minutes from its deep bench, whether it is Justin Reed versus Memphis or Bracey against the Nets.
So, having called this team outside the playoffs for 2006-07, am I waffling in light of their recent torrid performance? Waffling, yes, because the Clips, the Kings and the Hornets all are performing well below what I expected. As for the Wolves, they had to make hay in this recent soft spot in their schedule, and to their credit, they did. Now they enter the tough stretch of their January slate: two games apiece against Detroit and Phoenix and a five-game West Coast swing among the next 10 games. If they can achieve a 5-5 split or better, and head into February at least three wins above .500, this Strength in Numbers thing may be for real after all.
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