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The Three-Pointer: W's in OT

1. Leave Hassell Alone In the wake of Trenton Hassell's career-tying 22-point effort in the first of the Wolves' two overtime wins this weekend, 104-102 over Philadelphia Friday night, both dailies ran stories by their backup beat writers lauding and encouraging more offense from the team's defensive specialist. Fueling this theme were quotes from Kevin Garnett praising Hassell's court IQ while saying "we need him to be more aggressive," and coach Dwane Casey, who is quoted as saying "He can do both [offense and defense]...Those are things we need out of him."

Say what? The Wolves outlasted the 76ers less because Hassell went a gaudy 10-13 from the floor, than because he stemmed the hot streak of Philly's Kyle Korver by chasing him through picks and dribbles and staying in his face during key moments of the second half. Defense the way Hassell plays it is brutally hard work. He almost never goes for the glitzy but high-risk steal, preferring the inexorable task of trying to deny his man a clear shot at the basket. He defends the fadeaway jumper as well as any swingman in the game, having learned to jump forward with his hand in his opponent's face without causing contact. He guards little speedsters like Tony Parker, lethal catch-and-shoot artists like Korver, and large, rangy marksmen like Tracy McGrady.

Last year, when the bottom fell out of the Wolves' offense and the team was using him in a lot more post-up schemes, Hassell conceded to me that playing staunch defense frequently left him sapped of energy at the other end, and that the extra effort on offense was making his standard bulkwark D more problematical. It was neither a complaint nor an excuse: he stated it as fact. Yes, KG is right, Hassell has become extremely clever at both moving the ball and moving without the ball over the past year. Both if he going to remain the stopper on defense for this ballclub, the team should regard his offensive explosions as bonuses or happy accidents. Claiming they "need" more O from Hassell insults the depth of his commitment to defense.

Hey, here's a concept: Instead of pressing Hassell for points and dimes, how about seeing if you can make Ricky Davis give a damn about defense more than once every two or three games, for more than two or three quarters a game. Davis is two inches taller, quicker, and more athletic than Hassell. Yet somehow Korver managed to undress Davis during his second half scoring sprees, to the point where Casey first switched him off Korver and then sent him to the bench altogether, at which point the Wolves reeled off a 12-1 to go up by 9 midway through the 4th quarter. Yet Casey reinserted Davis for the last 5:04 of regulation--for better spacing on offense, he said after the game--during which time the Wolves blew their lead and went to overtime.

Flash forward to the 4th quarter Sunday afternoon against Houston and Davis is once again playing indifferent defense, allowing Luther Head to drive right past him for an easy layup. With the Wolves up 6 and 7:56 left to go, Davis looks mightily peeved as Casey sends him to the bench. "Good riddance," I think. Except that Houston goes on a 14-6 run and is up by a deuce when Davis returns at 3:13. Heroes and villains aren't that simple.

Let's give credit where it's due and then sort out the bad from the biased. Because Davis shoots decently, passes better than that, has learned not to hog the ball, and can capably jumpstart the offense a half-dozen different ways, he merits scrutiny by opponents and contributes to better spacing on the offensive end. On defense, Davis will show flashes of effort, diving on the floor for a loose ball, hounding his man as the shot clock goes down, or shrewdly setting himself up for a steal. But even more often, there are ghastly lapses in his defensively intensity, in both man-to-man and defensive rotation situations. It is the sort of selfish, bullshit play that leads one to suspect he has no honor. That's on Davis. That he is almost never penalized for this lack of defensive effort with fewer minutes is on Casey, the coach who claims defense is a top priority and who doesn't mind pressuring Hassell for more offense.

And yet, when all is said and done, Davis is ultimately more aggravating than ineffective. Yes he loafs and gets burned, but he is also athletic enough and sneaky quick enough to play better than one might imagine. Bottom line, Ricky Davis is a mediocre defender. But because he so clearly could be a top-notch defender with just a little more gumption and personal sacrifice, there's a temptation (one to which I frequently yield) to label him a horrible defender. Sometimes he just doesn't give a shit. So be it. But before everyone starts pushing Hassell to bury a few more jumpers, it would help if they could figure out how to get Davis to make a few more stops at the other end.

2. James Remains the X Factor Mike James has failed to answer the bell consistently enough to exhaust most of his supporters. Although their demons become manifest in very different ways, comparisons of James and last year's Marko Jaric were becoming unavoidable. Slowly and fitfully, however, James has begun to contest his demise. He's had wretched first quarters the past two games, going scoreless with one assist in a combined 16:56 while allowing his counterparts Andre Miller and Rafer Alston to amass 15 points and 4 assists in that same timespan. When NBA Rookie of December Randy Foye notched his first double-double with a ten assist display against Philadelphia, the notion of James getting many more chances to prove his worth in the starting lineup seemed in jeopardy.

But check the third quarters of those games. James had 16 points and 7 assists in a combined 20:27 while Miller and Alston combined for two points and two assists over that period. So when Foye followed up his shakey second quarter against the Rockets by being unable to coordinate the offense as Houston turned a 9-point deficit into a lead with four and a half minutes left to play in regulation, Casey made a gutsy substitution and gave James extended crunchtime minutes for the first time in weeks. James responded by finishing with the same glorious ten assists/one turnover ratio as Foye compiled on Friday. If you want to feel good about the Timberwolves, having a pair of floor generals each go 10/1 in successive games--even if they were both overtimes--is a nice place to start.

Those who clamor for Foye to start at the point are guided by clean, simple logic. Foye appears to have the chance to be a special player. Let's hasten his development in time for him to become KG's best-ever teammate and maybe get a shot at a ring three years or so down the road. I've got no problem with Foye getting 30 minutes a game for precisely that reason; I just think at least half of them should be at the off-guard. That would allow Foye to absorb the nuances of the point slowly but surely, lessen the impact of the "rookie wall" most first-year players hit about 50 games into the season, give he and James a chance to exploit their naturally complementary talents (Foye as penetrator, James as bomber), and provide Davis with consequences for his shoddy D.

But more than that, James was never supposed to be a mere stopgap; when you plan to pay a guy nearly $24 million over the next four years, he too should be an integral part of your future. And as for the present, the best and perhaps only shot for the Wolves to make the playoffs this season is if James steps up and becomes the chief ball-handler against pressure defenses. (Otherwise, you have KG coming down to lend a hand against the press, as he often did in the second half against Philly with Foye in the game.)

Finally, a return to form by James and a relatively healthy Rashad McCants back in stride would enable Minnesota to flip one of their innumerable swingmen for a tall banger before the end of the trading deadline. Because the Wolves still play as if they're on a tightrope whenever Garnett takes a second-half breather.

3.Craig Smith: Mini-slump or flash in the pan? The second-rounder from Boston College was one of the league's feel-good stories the first month of the season, but seems to have lost his mojo in recent weeks. That neat little floater he rolls up from his elbow seems to be grazing the front iron instead of the twine; the sinewy offensive rebounds more frequently prompt the ref's whistle for a foul; his rotations no longer seem to be spot-on almost ahead of the beat; and his role in general has been diminished by Blount's enhanced defense, KG's dominance, and the ability to match up with smaller lineups.

Some of this may be due to Smith appearing on the scout's radar; no doubt the word is out that you need to put a body on him, and it better be a large one unless you can go small and lure him out of the paint. After the first week or two of the season, I always thought Smith shaped up as a nice, semi-valuable role player, about 8th or 9th in your rotation. Neither his eye-opening November nor his desultory past two weeks have altered that opinion.

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