Another "A" for Effort

Center Rasho Nesterovic: Still improving, still inconsistent
David Kern

The Minnesota Timberwolves have overachieved their way into mediocrity for so long now that it has become an increasingly thankless proposition. With a roster made up of a solitary superstar, a revolving group of middling role players--whose team play has been beset by injuries and unfamiliarity--an overmatched jackrabbit (Iggy Rakocevic) and a moody malcontent (Loren Woods), the Wolves had reason to be proud of owning the NBA's eighth-best record (and their third-best in franchise history) going into last weekend's All-Star break. Yet given the caliber of competition in the Western Conference, the team still faces daunting odds of breaking out of its six-year rut of first-round playoff losses. Those dim prospects, and an ill-timed raise in ticket prices this season, have made Wolves fans understandably skittish, resulting in vast expanses of empty red seats at the Target Center.

The attendance woes must be galling for a franchise that has lost only two home games since November. When shooting guard Wally Szczerbiak finally returned after a toe injury to play against Sacramento January 10, the club was at full strength for the first time this season and promptly reeled off nine wins in 11 games before two more starters--point guard Rod Strickland and then power forward Joe Smith--were forced to the sidelines. That period included a six-game winning streak that kindled hope among the Wolves' more patient partisans.

Fortune smiled on the Wolves when they played a road game against Portland on the night Rasheed Wallace, the Blazers' best player, began a seven-game suspension for threatening a referee. Luck also was evident two nights later, when Minnesota played one of its worst games of the season and still managed to beat a sorry Toronto ballclub missing its injured star, Vince Carter. Grit came to the fore when the Wolves came back from deficits of 16 points to the Clippers late in the third quarter and 15 points to Washington at halftime to earn inspirational wins.

The direct and indirect benefits of Szczerbiak's return were apparent during the winning streak. Wally's potent long-range scoring capabilities and constant offensive movement without the ball diverted opposing defenders away from some of their double and triple coverage on Kevin Garnett, and provided more space for big men like Smith and Rasho Nesterovic to operate near the basket. Against Seattle, the front line of KG, Smith, and Rasho racked up 27 points--converting an amazing 12 of 13 field goal attempts--as the Wolves jumped out to a 39-24 first-quarter lead before coach Flip Saunders inexplicably benched the trio at the beginning of the second quarter and allowed the Sonics to get back in the game.

Unfortunately, Szczerbiak has also retained his proclivity for turning the ball over on offense and losing his man on defense, and it was the team's other two shooting guards who fueled the comebacks against the Clippers and Washington. After the Clips' Quentin Richardson burned Wally for a bevy of buckets, Anthony Peeler stepped up defensively with six steals and tenacious coverage that allowed Richardson only one shot in the second half. The next night on the road against Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards, Kendall Gill started nailing jump shots from all over the court in the third quarter en route to a 19-point performance.

It would be foolhardy for the Wolves to count on stifling defense from Peeler and points from Gill to win many more games. But it is becoming clearer that the team's position in the standings will depend on Saunders's ability to unearth and foster these unlikely bonuses from his role players, especially after (if) everyone on the roster is healthy. Behind Garnett, the NBA's true MVP thus far this season, the talent gap between the Wolves' second- and 10th-best players is smaller than any other playoff contender, providing Saunders with precious little reliability but plenty of options to mix and match.

Begin at the crucial point-guard position, which has been diminished by the (probably permanent) loss of Terrell Brandon to a leg injury. The Wolves have belatedly realized that the physical and psychological limitations of Troy Hudson's court vision and passing instincts require that he first establish his own scoring rhythm and then parlay it into effective, aggressive distribution of the ball. Even when this works--when he's hot, Hudson can be an unstoppable offensive force--it disrupts Saunders's pass-oriented offense and sows dissonance among Hudson's teammates, who have successfully struggled to get open for their own shot. Most everyone agrees that Hudson is at his best coming off the bench to jolt a languishing offense out of its doldrums. But that hands the starter's responsibilities over to Rod Strickland, who is blessed with the brains and cursed with the body of a 38-year-old veteran. Watching Strickland orchestrate a two-on-one fast break, or swing a cross-court pass over the weak side the second a teammate arrives to receive it, are things of beauty. But there are as many plays in which he can't compensate for the lack of quickness his age has wrought, and counting on heavy minutes from a guy who has already been sidelined by an infected butt and a non-contact groin injury is, uh, problematical. And, needless to say, Iggy Rakocevic is not even a short-term stopgap solution.

The power forward position features the feisty but foul-prone defense of Joe Smith and backup Gary Trent's score-a-lot, yield-a-lot low-post play. At center, Nesterovic is inexorably improving all facets of his game, but he is still terminally soft for a seven-footer, and his offense continues to wax and wane like the moon in the sky. Marc Jackson is an adept passer, moves and communicates well on defense, and can hit the mid-range jumper; he simply lacks the requisite size and talent to be a sustaining presence in the pivot against behemoths. Szczerbiak's offense demands that he play at either shooting guard or small forward, depending on which position least exposes his deficiencies. Peeler and Gill are good glue guys for specific segments of the game, but not the sort of horses you can ride into the second round of the playoffs.

That leaves Garnett the Magnificent. In the Wolves' final game before the all-star break, he garnered five rebounds in the first quarter, 10 points in the third, and four assists in the fourth, and he effectively guarded jitterbug point guard Steve Francis and Chinese giant Yao Ming at crucial stages of the game. At home against San Antonio, KG was so pumped that he blasted the opening tip out of bounds off Strickland's shoulder, executed a nifty drop-step and slam-dunk on the Wolves' initial offensive possession, and thoroughly outplayed his MVP rival Tim Duncan in leading the Wolves to their sixth straight victory.

But the game after San Antonio, on the road against first-place Dallas, KG's typically stupendous performance and 31 points from Hudson still weren't enough to triumph over the obviously more talented Mavericks. What's more, Garnett and his teammates expended so much physical and emotional effort in the loss that they were roasted by Houston the next night. Unless KG can be better than his already league-wide best, and Saunders becomes a magician with his substitution patterns, we can expect more admirable overachievement to yield ultimately thankless results in the weeks ahead.

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