The Three-Pointer: Zoned Out

1. Centers of Attention (Apologies for the late post. My fabled computer skills kicked in last night when I had my website open in one area while amending the site in another. Result: Wiped out copy and a trudge to bed.)

By starting Madsen and AC against Phoenix, Casey was sending the message that passion, movement without the ball, playing team D and feeding KG were the priorities. Right message, right opponent, right result. I cringed when I saw Mad Dog remain in the starting lineup versus Ilgauskas last night, thinking that Griffin was the superior option. When it was over, I had to concede that Madsen had played a whale of a game, and increasingly understand why he's getting steady minutes.

First of all, Mad Dog is hands down the best pick and roll defender among our pivotmen. He extends out farther, shows harder and more consistently, and understands when to foul when he's beat and when to let the guy go. On the boards, he's begun to emulate KG's tip drill, with his own wrinkle of knowing he can rarely tip it to himself, so he either directs it to a teammate or tries to knock it out of bounds off an opponent. And it's fairly effective. And the gusto with which he boxes out is almost comedic--demolition derby, sometimes extending two or three seconds after the ball has already gone through the hoop. He hip-checked Donyell Marshall into the stanchion beneath the basket after a made foul shot last night. Is he an extremely limited talent? Yup. But it is hard not to like him, especially after the stink of Golden State.

I'm not going to beat a dead horse regarding Casey's apparent disdain for the contributions of Eddie Griffin, but I do need to dust the scene of the crime for the coach's fingerprints on this loss, and they go straight to opting for Blount over Griffin when Madsen went to the sidelines. The first time it happened, the Wolves were up 19-6 with 5:17 left in the period. Z had a mere four points and the Wolves were kicking ass on the boards (the Cavs first rebound was four minutes into the game). By the time Blount sat with 9:47 left in the second quarter, the 13-point lead had been downsized to 4. In the space of 3 minutes overlapping the first and second periods, Blount committed two fouls and the Cavs rang up three lay-ups and a slam dunk. Only when Blount was tagged with his third foul did Casey go to Griffin, who didn't play that well, but also didn't sabotage his squad by spectating in the paint as quicker, more industrious opponents snatched offensive boards and executed lay-ups. The Wolves were plus-2 in EG's 6:40 (his only PT of the night), and minus-5 the rest of the second quarter.

In the second half, same deal: Blount in for Madsen at 5:04 of the third period with the Wolves up 2, 62-60. When the period was over, the Wolves were down 5, 71-76. If you're scoring at home, that's minus-16 (in a game Minnesota lost by 6) for Mark Blount, in 12:34 of play. The Cavs scored 38 points in those 12:34, versus 59 points in the 35:26 he was mercifully benched. He had zero points, one rebound. BTW, by far the largest advantage Chris Wilcox has over Eddie Griffin is his shooting accuracy. Their size, age, salary, are all roughly similar. Griffin, of course, is a far superior shot-blocker, and, in my opinion, has a much bigger upside. But the point is, didn't we just swallow Mark Blount's huge contract to have a cohort for KG who could put the ball in the hoop? Griffin for Wilcox would have been misguided before the trade for Blount was made. Now that Blount will be sucking up salary cap space for another millenium or two, with his lone proven skill being the accuracy of his jumper, sacrificing Griffin for Wilcox would be asinine, especially for a team that supposedly wants to establish a defensive identity.

2.Hasselling LBJ Ricky Davis poured in 33 last night, and KG corralled 18 boards and chipped in 21. I thought Trenton Hassell was Minnesota's MVP.

What makes LeBron James a player who merits watching to see if he can reach the heights of the two greatest NBA swingmen in history, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson, is his sheer inexorability. I'm not even sure that's a word, but it's as good as any to describe the combination of strength and willpower that makes LeBron such a relentless force on the court. Well, last night, Trenton Hassell compelled LBJ to shoot less than 33% (11-34 FG). He did it in pure Hassell style, not bothering to go for steals (LBJ had zero turnovers!), but steadfastly moving his feet and sticking out his chest so that he was always between his man and the basket. Against a foe like LeBron, that is practically impossible.

I think James had a bit of an off night. He seemed a tad disinterested in the first quarter while his team was tanking, and he didn't have a great shooting eye. Other players performed yeoman service on him when the defense rotated or Hassell sat, most notably Lenin-Reed and KG. All that said, during the 40+ minutes Hassell and James were on the court together, there were at least 25 possessions where LBJ had the ball out on the wing in the relatively open half-court, and, unless the Cavs engaged someone else via a pick-and-roll, the Wolves eschewed traps and double-teams and let Hassell handle it on his own. I recommend that high school and college coaches get footage and show their troops what classic on-ball defense looks like, and what can be accomplished even when you are guarding an opponent who is superior in size, skills, and quickness.

Those of you who frequent this board to hector me and the other posters about the Wolves lost season and how they don't have a chance, they suck, etc. ad nauseum, just don't get it. How Minnesota fares is the ostensible topic, I know, but in essence, it really is about this being just a beautiful, beautiful game for its combination of athletic, balletic grace, cognitive strategy, and sheer grit and guts. You never know when you're going to be ambushed by a particularly sterling example of that, but you want to be around when it happens. Hassell versus LBJ last night was one of those times.

3.Oh yeah, the zone The way the Cavs' zone frustrated the Wolves was my first point during last night's aborted posting of the Three Pointer, but now that the beat writers have hit print (the Strib even matches my headine--mediocre minds think alike...) and Asch and Rick Alonzo have cited the same KG quotes I was using (and in greater detail), I'll be more succinct.

Yes, Minnesota misses the long bombs of Szczerbiak, Hudson, Frahm, and Cassell and Hoiberg, for that matter. In terms of pure form, I happen to think Marcus Banks has promise as a three-point shooter; Ricky Davis less so; McCants maybe so; and Marko Jaric, should he ever emerge from the witness protection program, can pick his spots. You can also attack a zone with penetration, or probe it with crisp passing and pseudo penetration that creates open midrange jumpers.

What was most significant about the Cavs zone to me last night was how much KG fixated on it (Casey too, but less so) after the game. One of the posters to this site has already noted that the Wolves don't dish the rock as much as they did under Flip, and I would argue that, unless you want to hand the keys to Banks and tell him to use his speed and freelance, the best way for the Wolves to combat the zone is to put KG sufficiently far enough out on the high post that the opposing big man is drawn there too. If he doesn't come out, let Garnett burn them from 17 feet out, where he seems as reliable as Peja or Ray Allen--no joke. If the bigs do creep up, back door cuts for Davis and Hassell, who both are pretty fair passers in their own right and can make the extra dish from the baseline to the teammate cutting down the middle.

Bottom line, I think Minnesota has the tools to combat the zone if they just play smart and use their ability. The tools are standard-issue: move the ball, move without the ball, and make them pay with the first good open shot you see. Last night the shots weren't going down. Of course when your three best scoring options are a guy who didn't sit in the second half (KG), a guy who jacked up 29 shots, including 12 in the first quarter (Davis) and a guy who chased LeBron all night (Hassell), fatigue is going to be a factor. And on a team where, after the superstar, the talent differential between #2 and #10 isn't that great, the coach needs to substitute wisely enough to prevent that fatigue.

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