The Three-Pointer: The Bucks Aren't Stopped Here

1) The return of Avis

For three weeks, Ricky Davis has provided team and on-ball defense ranging from mediocre to well above-average. But not once in that seven-game span had Davis shown the maddening gaps in concentration and listless energy that characterized most of the games in the first month of the season.

Tonight, Avis returned with a vengeance. It started innocently enough, with Charlie Bell, Davis's assignment and the Bucks' 6th leading scorer at 10.6 ppg on 42.4 FG percentage, getting half his average on a trey and two free throws in a first period that ended with Davis letting Michael Redd waltz downcourt to nail a trey with one second on the clock. After a three-minute rest in the second quarter, Davis returned with 6:33 left in the half and the score tied at 35, and proceeded to put on a shameful display of defensive indifference that might help add some zeros to Charlie Bell's next contract negotiation. At 6:06 Bell drove for a layup. At 5:46 he drove for another one. At 5:18 he nailed a 21 foot jumper off the fast break. At 4:57 he hit a 17 footer. Davis fouled him at 4:08 and Bell hit both free throws. For those counting at home, that's 10 points in 2:25, and a 7 point lead for Milwaukee. At the half, Charlie frickin' Bell had 22 points in 20:20 of action, all but 2 of them coming with Davis in the game as his primary defender. Bell finished with 28 points, negating Davis's 23, though Ricky did add 6 assists to Bell's 2. Still, when Ricky Davis and Charlie Bell are a push, the Wolves' chances of securing a win plummet.

2) Perspective on Casey

I've done my fair share of ripping on Dwane Casey thus far this season. I believe it to be fair criticism, and as specific as I can make it. I was especially rough on him in the wake of the embarrassing Lakers' loss--again, I believe, appropriately so. But a couple of other things also happened after that Laker game: Kevin Garnett's oblique but unmistakeable criticism of the coaching staff; and a Sid Hartman column that spoke of "big changes" and hinted that either a large trade or Casey's head on a platter was imminent because Wolves owner Glen Taylor was so upset up the Lakers' 27 point edge in the 4th quarter.

Tonight, Casey was more animated both in the huddle and with the referees, earning a technical--a silly call, but one prompted by his uncharacteristically running past the ref with his arms up--and in general looking like a man under pressure. And indeed, other media folks revealed that Taylor came in and sat down during their interviews with the coach before the game.

Has Casey done a good job thus far this year? On balance, I'd say no, he has not. Does he deserve to lose his job? That's much more difficult for me to answer. Last month I wrote a column for the paper edition of CP that hinted that Casey would become this season's fall guy if the Wolves did not play up to Taylor's inflated expectations for the team. The lead for that column was edited out for space reasons while I was headed out of town for that five-game stretch I missed celebrating my father's birthday. Too bad, because it captures my feelings for him better than anything I've written before or since:

"Anyone who wishes ill fortune on Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey obviously doesn't know the man. Casey not only carries himself with an enormous amount of personal dignity, but treats everyone else as if they are doing the same. At first blush, this rigorous, diplomatic integrity makes Casey, 49, seem eminently trustworthy and competent. Later, when the foibles and limitations of his coaching style are more apparent, faith deteriorates into hope, and he becomes the stolid, stand-up dude you want to see succeed."

So, here's my fall-back position: If anyone in the Timberwolves organization deserves a pink slip, it is Kevin McHale. The fact that Taylor has essentially answered my question about why he didn't fire McHale by saying he didn't have anyone else at the time, and is now grooming Fred Hoiberg for the job, has reduced the scrutiny on McHale, leaving frustrated Wolves fans (and pundits) inevitably looking for another target. And after McHale, Casey is an obvious choice.

But there is no justice if Casey is canned and McHale stays on. Yes, McHale had a very nice draft this season with Foye and Smith. But drafting Will Avery is worth two putrid Laker games; Ndi Ebi at least three or four; the loss of two first-round picks to the Clips and Celts that could have netted us Iverson? That trips the threshold.

Remember, most national basketball mags and websites and television shows had the Wolves pegged among the bottom ten teams in the 30 team NBA. Right now Casey has that squad at 10-13. That is below Taylor's expectations, and below what "it just needs tweaking" McHale claims as this team's potential. But it is slightly above what more objective observers saw for this squad this season.

But that doesn't absolve Casey from his errors. Again, I believe if you are going to criticize a person, be specific so they know what you are talking about. Casey claims that he wants this ballclub to have a defensive identity, yet Ricky Davis totally mails it in on defense in the second quarter and is never benched for it--he played a game-high 45 minutes tonight! It is not like Casey doesn't have options, a plethora of swingmen to plug in and send a message to Davis: exert yourself on D or grab some pine. I'd also like to see him play Foye with Mike James more often, and with KG too. I'd like to see him call out his players more, but I know that's not his way. Most of all, because I cover this team and respect his decency, I'd like to see him succeed. But hopefully that won't prevent me from pointing out when and why he doesn't.

3) Quick takes

Davis was not the only scofflaw on defense tonight. Mike James erased his 28-point, 8-assist performance with miserable D on both Mo Williams and Steve Blake. Williams is emerging as a point guard to be reckoned with, so his 26 points is not that surprising. The problem was when and how they came: Casey favorably compared the second-half team defense to what transpired in Milwaukee's 30 point second quarter, but the Bucks got 30 im the final stanza too, and Williams went off for 16 of them in just 9 minutes of action, frequently by simply dribbling down the court and jacking up a jumper in semi-transition. Ditto Blake on the final play of the third quarter. Time after time, James just kept back-peddling on defense, the same thing he did when Tony Parker torched him a few games back. In fact, James on balance has played worse defense than Davis this season, albeit not sinking to the lows Davis has plunged to in certain games.

In a not-so-subtle allusion to Davis and James, I followed up KG's negative comments about the team's defensive effort tonight by observing that it didn't look like a communication problem so much as a flaw in the perimeter defense. In a not-so-subtle shot at Taylor and McHale (probably for not getting Iverson and for the personnel shortage in general) Garnett responded that when an opponent scores he scores on the entire team, from the executives in the stands to the ownership to everybody.

For the second time against the Bucks, Mark Blount looked maahvolous out on the court, hustling hard on interior defensive rotations, and fighting gamely for rebounds and loose balls. And yet for the second time against Milwaukee, Blount finished with an awful--team-worst, in fact--minus 13 on the popcornmachine plus/minus, while his replacement, Craig Smith, was a team-best plus 7. (The only other plus was Trenton Hassell's plus 3, helped by his yeoman D on Michael Redd, who required 25 shots to get his 29 points.) Why? Smith ran the floor well, scoring a couple of times on lead passes in transition. And Smith simply plays the pick-and-roll more intuitively and thus more rapidly and wisely.

After the starting lineups were announced, Rashad McCants went to center court in a Santa beard, continuing his impro0bable but genuinely comical roles in a series of skits and situations the team's marketing department has devised for him. Ah, but this time he punctuated it by flinging down his hat at center court and declaring, like it was a gauntlet, that--"The Bucks stop here."

Nope. Bucks 113, Wolves 107.

FYI--I'm pretty sure I'll be skipping the trey on tomorrow's game in Indiana, as I imagine most of you are preoccupied with the holidays. Diehard can comment on the Wolves-Pacers tilt in the comments section of this three-pointer.

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