An Unpleasant Postmortem
I decided to predict that the Wolves would get swept by Dallas moments after Minnesota blew an eminently winnable game at home against Boston in the next-to-last game of the regular season. With the Wolves down by a point with 31 seconds to play, Wally Szczerbiak, a career 84 percent free-throw shooter, missed two attempts from the line. With seven seconds left and the team still trailing by one, Kevin Garnett clanged an open-look jump shot off the left side of the hoop. "Fetal position," I wrote in my notebook, describing the Wolves' psychological state. "Dysfunctional chemistry. Zero confidence at crunch time. Fear of losing--a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Flash forward to yesterday's game. Down by 17 points entering the fourth quarter, the Wolves had cut the margin to three with four minutes left in the game. Did anybody seriously believe the team possessed the heart and soul to finish the job?
After the game, the coach and the players were in severe denial about how toxic the team's chemistry has become. Coach Flip Saunders talked about the danger of blowing up the roster; Garnett, Szczerbiak, and point guard Chauncey Billups all argued for minor tweaking and keeping the team's core intact. The evidence of the past seven weeks belies this pat, sanguine approach.
I'm not inclined to be a conspiracy theorist, but sometimes the situation is too stark to be ignored. On March 4, ESPN The Magazine printed a story that had a number of Wolves' players ripping Szczerbiak for ball-hogging. When Minnesota took the floor that night, the team's record was 40-19, the first and only time in franchise history that it was 21 games over .500. Since then, including the playoffs, the club's record is 10-16. That's not a coincidence.
For a player to be a reliable point-producer in the NBA, he needs to have no conscience, no worries or memories about recently-missed shots, no feeling that his teammates resent or suspect his decision-making capabilities. The Wolves' top-two point producers, KG and Szczerbiak, played the last two months of the season with too much psychological baggage to be effective. For Garnett, it was the chronic, career-long inability to score when it matters most, a fact that stems from his internal accountability and his volatile emotions (put simply, he chokes because he cares too much). For Szczerbiak, it was the knowledge that he did not have the support of his coach or his teammates to do what he does best, which is put the ball in the hole.
Shame on Flip Saunders for letting this happen. Saunders' reputation as an innovative tactician and "player's coach" has deservedly taken a big hit in recent weeks. In February, after Terrell Brandon went down with a season-ending injury and the Wolves acquired Marc Jackson for Dean Garrett, Saunders tried to refocus the offense away from mid-range jump shots and more toward low-post scoring from Jackson, Gary Trent, KG, Rasho Nesterovic, and Joe Smith. Not only did that strategy fail, but it threw the team's half-court passing offense--already hindered by Billups replacing Brandon at the point--out of sync. To make matters worse, Saunders did not do enough to defend Szczerbiak--or simply clear the air--after the ESPN article was published.
Going into the Dallas series, it was obvious that the Wolves possessed both inferior overall talent and a diseased mindset. It was time to scramble the deck, to come up with something bold. One answer could have been for Minnesota to take advantage of Dallas' shoddy defense and bomb away from long range; the Wolves actually had a higher three-point shooting percentage than the Mavericks during the regular season, and in Szczerbiak boasted the fourth-most accurate shooter in the league from beyond the arc. But there were no noticeable wrinkles or surprises from Saunders in the series.
Next week I'll delve more into what the Wolves' need to do--and, sadly, what little they can do--to prepare for next season. If the team really does intend to keep its core roster intact, then Szczerbiak needs to be featured as a prime-time scorer and leading option down the stretch. To do that, Saunders must focus less on Wally's defense (which was horrible again in the playoffs) and more on sending a message to the team that sniping about Szczerbiak's shot selection is out of line. Because if you aren't going to go to Wally early and often on offense, his D is too expensive for a playoff contender.
If you don't rely on Szczerbiak and still keep the team together, then it comes down to KG. People who complain about his low-post game overlook the strides he made in that direction this season, when he went to the hole more aggressively and racked up more foul shots than ever before. The problem is psychological and it comes at crunch time. To address it, let's remove the crutches. Instead of listing and announcing his height as 6-11, state the truth: the guy is an inch over seven feet tall. Instead of marveling at his all-around game and versatility, tell him you want more points at the expense of his rebounds, assists, and defense. Make him choke, again and again, if necessary, until he surmounts it or forces a trade by his continual failure.
I prefer the Szczerbiak option. I don't want to sacrifice Garnett's marvelous all-around game, and I don't want the enormous risk involved in putting the screws to his psyche. But to go with the Szczerbiak option, this franchise, especially Saunders and KG, need to embrace it, foster it, exploit it, and suffer the negative consequences (mucho missed shots on his off nights, pathetic defense on at least half of his match-ups) without rancor.
Of course neither option is a good one. And blowing up the team presents its own share of nightmares. But I will talk about that more next week.
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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