A Pivotal Home Stand
I know I posted just a couple of days ago (see "The Rituals of KG"), but in just a few hours the Wolves will play the second game in a home stand that will determine in large measure whether or not they gain home court advantage in the playoffs. The team has been playing below .500 ball over the past two months (10-13) and are reeling and disorganized, especially on offense. What follows are a few thoughts about what's wrong and what needs to change.
It's time for the Brandon bashers to start eating their words. You can dislike Terrell's inconsistency and occasional lack of heart, but you can't deny the guy has always been adept at reducing turnovers and dictating a smooth passing flow in the half-court offense. Those qualities have been sorely missed as the Wolves fumble the ball away in their offensive sets, attempting to make a snazzy pass instead of tossing the rock around-the-horn, which once sparked their offense and led to open jumpers.
When Brandon went down with an injury, coach Flip Saunders reduced the scope of the offense to make things easier for backup Chauncey Billups. For awhile Billups made it work with accurate long-range three-pointers and aggressive penetration that opened up space for his teammates and allowed for easy assists--assists that even Billups, with his limited court vision, could detect. But Chauncey has since been nicked by injuries and is not coping well with opponents who pressure him just after he crosses half court. You knew things were shaky when the team's third-string point guard, woeful Will Avery, bailed the team out in a couple of close victories. But relying on Avery is fool's gold. His court vision is myopic, his dribbling sub-par, and his shot selection inexplicable. Putting Kevin Garnett in the high-post as a point forward works on occasion, but teams have scouted the play and have started to take away that high-post pick-and-roll, featuring KG and either Billups, Wally Szczerbiak, or Anthony Peeler.
The solution? Nothing's certain with Brandon on crutches, but if Billups is physically able, I'd urge him to throw-up more three-pointers and penetrate more often and more aggressively on offense. I'd also think about giving Anthony Peeler some minutes at the point instead of Avery or Felipe Lopez; Peeler has better passing instincts and is a better ball handler. Then Saunders could match Lopez up against the opposition's hottest shooting off-guards, where his size and quickness could be effective in short defensive bursts.
Get Wally Off
The Wolves' aren't going anywhere without a confident Wally Szczerbiak shooting 12 to 18 times per game. In Monday's abysmal loss to the Clippers, Minnesota's best pure shooter (and one of the ten best in the league) had just six attempts, including one with just four minutes left in the game. There has been some talk in recent months about how much Wally wants or needs the ball. Earlier, I wrote that the idea that he was being "frozen out" of the offense was a silly controversy. I also concluded the recent ESPN The Magazine piece about Wally's alleged ball-hogging was over inflated and sensationalistic. But the magazine did quote a number of Wally's teammates by name and it seems to be messing with his mind a bit. And it doesn't help that opponents are now going out of their way to disrupt his rhythm.
The team has understandably closed ranks and unanimously criticized the story. Still, no matter how much Wally tries to shrug off the quotes in the story, they had to sting. In addition, Saunders has been preaching that the team go to the hoop harder and more often. I'm guessing that has exerted a double whammy on Wally's offensive game. The strength of his offense has always been a lightning-quick release and a deadly accuracy from 15 to 18 feet--even when opposing guards are stuck in his face. But now, not wanting to look like a gunner and adhering to Saunders' dictum to penetrate, he's putting the ball on the floor in traffic, which is not to his or the team's advantage. When he does drive to the basket, he's looking too much to dish to an open teammate. The result is mucho turnovers, either by getting pick-pocketed or making ill-advised passes off the dribble.
After the Clippers' game, Saunders was unsympathetic to Wally's plight, remarking that he must learn to create his own shots and play in better rhythm. But what needs to be done is to get Wally off early, both by encouraging him to shoot the jumpers and by running some double-screens and other plays specifically designed to get him open. This whole notion of Szczerbiak playing and shooting "within the context of the offense" was fine when Brandon was at the controls. But with Billups running the offense, it's time to feature Wally and get him on a roll.
If Saunders isn't working to get Wally scoring opportunities, than he should probably limit his minutes, because his defense is increasingly suspect. Against the Clippers, Eric Piatkowski--a player who pretty much does nothing but spot-up for long range jumpers--torched Wally for a couple of three-pointers in the first quarter; then, late in the game, Quentin Richardson made both Szczerbiak and Peeler look silly. (The criticism of Rasho Nesterovic letting Sean Rooks get free for open jump shots during that game was misguided. It was clear that Rasho was supposed to stay home under the basket as insurance when Richardson inevitably beat Peeler and Szczerbiak and went toward the hoop. The Wolves dared the Clips to beat them with Rooks, and he did.)
Like all outwardly cocky guys, Wally has a reservoir of insecurity. Public comments by his teammates, the added pressure of opponents, and his own checkered history in the locker room have got to be eating at him right now. The Wolves have to realize there is no quality playoff run unless his ego is livin' large.
Stuck In The Middle
Under Flip Saunders, the Wolves' offense has always been based upon crisp passes and mid-range jump shots. But with Brandon's injury, the acquisition of Marc Jackson, and the return to health of Gary Trent, Saunders has tinkered with that template and urged the team to pound the ball in the low post more often. Jackson and Trent and a more aggressive KG have made this a nice option on occasion, and theoretically the Wolves benefit from the broader array of styles they can throw at an opponent. But right now their low-post personnel isn't good enough to always take charge in the paint, and their outside shooters have drifted away from the flow and rhythm that made the original style so effective.
I'd establish the Wolves' bread-and-butter offensive attack first. Move the ball with dispatch and wisdom (if possible, with Billups at the point), and get points from Wally, Billups and KG in the mid-range area of half-court. Then, as opponents adjust to defend it, bring Trent and Jackson off-the-bench and start pounding the ball inside, with the occasional kick-out to Peeler or Wally for long-range threes. This has the added advantage of upping the tempo and getting the Wolves in the mind to play a transition game, which always helps their vigor and activism when playing their match up zone.
There's more: fans and media "geniuses" should stop blaming KG; Saunders should experiment more with Loren Woods out on the perimeter in the 3-2 defense; and Sam Mitchell should get more minutes when the team is flailing. But let's save all of that for Monday, when we'll all know more about which way this club is headed.
Britt Robson posts his Timberwolves column online at www.citypages.com every Monday during the NBA season--and maybe more frequently, if the mood strikes him.
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