What a mess. The psychological pratfall the Timberwolves have taken over the past seven weeks finally found its way between Flip Saunders's ears Saturday night as he overcoached his team out of whatever slim chance it had of beating a more confident and capable Portland ballclub.
After the game Saunders complained that the Wolves were settling for too many jump shots and not going to the hoop enough in the second half. Then why substitute Anthony Peeler for Felipe Lopez with his team down by a point with just 3:49 left? Peeler epitomizes outside j's over inside drives--he has attempted 225 three-pointers and only 45 free throws. In one-fourth as many minutes played, Lopez has attempted 28 threes and shot 40 free throws. Lopez is also a taller, quicker defender and thus better able to match up with Portland's Bonzie Wells and Scottie Pippen, who killed the Wolves down the stretch. And it wasn't as if Peeler was hot--he'd missed all five of his field-goal attempts and has a long history of being pretty consistently on or off during the course of a game.
Saunders also shot the Wolves in the head by playing Russian roulette with his point guards. Newcomer Robert Pack played the first five minutes of the fourth quarter before being replaced by Chauncey Billups, who in turn was lifted in favor of Pack at the same time Saunders was bringing Peeler in for Lopez. Then, exactly one minute later, it was Billups back in and Pack on the bench. To cap it off, both point guards played the by-then meaningless final 30 seconds of the nine-point loss. Right now Billups needs a shot of confidence and Pack is trying to figure out what role Saunders envisions for him on this team. Both purposes were ill-served by the coach's yo-yo desperation.
I've always been a pretty staunch supporter of Saunders. The knee-jerk response of vocal Wolves fans who have called for his removal during these wretched past seven weeks is simplistic, short-sighted nonsense. Flip is among the top ten coaches in the NBA. Since many of those calling for his head are the same people who have underrated Terrell Brandon's importance in running the coach's complex offense, it bears repeating yet again how much the Wolves have been hampered by TB's injury. That doesn't mean Saunders should be above reproach. He has been, after all, the one in the pilot's seat during the team's spectacular crash.
When the season began, Saunders claimed that the match-up zone schemes he'd instituted to take advantage of the new league rules would be a permanent advantage for the Wolves. Even as opponents became familiar with the schemes, he reasoned, his team would become more adept at executing them, and, furthermore, would play better man-to-man defense. While the coach deserves credit for being ahead of the curve, it's now pretty apparent that the zones are less effective as the novelty has worn off. The Wolves' defense is better overall than it was last season, but not as disruptive in either the zone schemes (which are deployed less often) or the man-to-man as it was two months ago. Additionally, during the team's extended funk, opponents have riddled the Wolves with scoring spurts and found baskets easier to make in the fourth quarter.
Saunders bears some responsibility for the woeful play of Marc Jackson. It seemed as if the Wolves had pulled off a coup when they acquired Jackson from Golden State a month ago in exchange for the aging and rarely used Dean Garrett, especially after Jackson produced a bushel of rebounds, some bruising picks, and a few timely baskets in his first two or three games. But Saunders has used Jackson primarily as a classic back-up center, responsible for jousting with opposing behemoths down under the basket, and it's increasingly obvious that Jackson is not well-suited for the role. During his break-out rookie season last year, Jackson's bump-and-grind style was more effective at power forward, where the physical matchup was less imposing and gave him more opportunities to shoot the midrange jumper or crash the boards from the wing. Owing to his extended inactivity at Golden State early in the year and the confined nature of his low-post responsibilities at center, he hasn't developed an offensive rhythm and is getting overwhelmed on defense. With no other back-up center, and Gary Trent, Joe Smith, and Kevin Garnett as other power forward options, its understandable that Saunders is using Jackson this way. But mentally and physically, at center or power forward, Jackson needs more moving and less bruising to scrape the rust off his skills.
The most delicate and difficult thing Saunders needs to do if he's to rescue his team from impending playoff disaster is tinker with his top two players, Kevin Garnett and Wally Szczerbiak. For the past few years, Flip has treated KG with extreme deference while using Wally as his whipping boy. In both cases there's just cause: Garnett is a versatile, relatively selfless superstar with a huge heart, and Szczerbiak can be a concentration-deprived, gaffe-laden annoyance. It's not wrong to try to keep KG totally happy--to a point. In that sense it's probably no coincidence that the Wolves have gone out of their way to acquire and accommodate not only KG, but his best buddies on the team, Chauncey Billups, Joe Smith, and Anthony Peeler. But who hasn't noticed that all three players have taken a large step backward during the past two months?
Billups and Smith are "tweeners"--meaning that their skills and styles don't fit neatly into a specific position. Billups is too small to be an effective defender at shooting guard and is bereft of the court vision, experience, and pass-first instincts of a classic point guard. Smith lacks the refined low-post offensive moves of a typical power forward, doesn't have the brawn to play much at center, and isn't quick enough to be a small forward. Peeler is an inconsistent shooter and also on the small side when guarding opposing shooting guards. Opponents with quality personnel and savvy scouts have found ways to exploit these weaknesses, and recently none of the trio have emphasized their virtues enough to punish the strategy.
Cutting the playing time (and then only slightly and situationally) of his buddies would affect KG indirectly, if at all. A bigger adjustment for Garnett--and challenge for Saunders--would be getting KG to share some of his "go-to guy" responsibility on offense with Szczerbiak at crunch time.
There is an abiding philosophy in the NBA, based in equal parts on macho pride and sound logic, that you rely on your leading scorer for points when the game is on the line, even when opponents know it's coming. But there are plenty of good reasons this is not a good approach for the Wolves.
It's no secret that KG's emotions are prone to get the best of him at crucial moments of the game. The competitive engine that makes him such a voracious defender can become overheated, and the selfless, team-oriented instincts that make him such an inspirational leader work against him. Put simply, he has to try too hard in order to overcome his natural inclinations, and his play suffers as a result. By contrast, when Szczerbiak is able to lock into a cold-blooded scorer's mentality, he not only craves the pressure of crunch-time shooting, but it enhances his focus and intensity for rebounding and defense.
When Garnett is matched up against an opponent who can't stop him (as happened last week against Memphis rookie Pau Gasol), then it makes sense to feature him as the go-to scorer. And when Saunders's deft passing offense is being choreographed by a smart point guard like Brandon, Garnett is more likely either to get the ball in a good scoring position or to maintain the crisp rhythm by passing to an open teammate. But too often in recent weeks, Garnett, feeling the weight of a losing streak, operating without Brandon, and matched up against an opponent's best big defender (or two), is adhering to the superstar's code and trying to win the game by himself. It isn't working.
If Saunders can't bring himself to shift the offensive emphasis to Wally at crunch time, then he should at least make it happen more often at other points. Right now Garnett is bearing so much of the offensive load that the full measure of his extraordinary defensive prowess can't be tapped. When the Wolves are getting burned by poor perimeter defense--a regular occurrence--it would be nice to throw KG on top in the team's "32" zone, an effective alignment that requires copious energy from Garnett. Minnesota's D would also be more formidable if KG were matched up against the elite power forwards in the Western Conference--Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan--for the entire game, instead of assigning the duty to Smith or Rasho Nesterovic. With KG at power forward, Wally would move up to small forward (where he's arguably a better defender than at shooting guard) and Felipe Lopez would get more minutes at shooting guard. Instead, Saunders has Smith or Nesterovic racking up fouls and/or condoning easy baskets while Lopez languishes on the bench.
Back in mid-January, when the Wolves were at their peak at 27-9, I wrote a column with section headlines that read, "Wally Szczerbiak Makes a Great Second Banana" and "A Great Second Banana Nourishes KG." In more detail, I wrote, "Now [Garnett] knows that Wally is going to need to grab the go-to-guy mantle away from him at some points during the game, the same way Stephon [Marbury] needed to, and that it's good for both him and the team to let it go."
I don't think KG feels that way anymore, and it's up to Saunders to reinvigorate it. Yes, Szczerbiak is being defended more assiduously now than in January, but if Saunders would take pains to bring back the killer shooting instinct of the Wally of yore, defenses would have a hard time containing him. The problem is that Szczerbiak knows that the notion of him as a ball hog--made plain in a recent article in ESPN The Magazine (see my column of March 4)--lurks beneath the surface; that Saunders still yells at him more than anyone on the team; and that his defense and court savvy are mediocre at best. Consequently, he almost invariably passes the ball rather than attempt a contested jumper.
Saunders has long preached the idea that players pass and pass until the man is open. More recently, he has also emphasized more low-post scoring through aggressive penetration and feeding the big men underneath. But in the month of March, the team has had trouble mustering even 90 points on most nights. Time to send a message to Wally and his teammates that specific plays are going to be run for him, and that it's okay for him to utilize his quick release and deadly accuracy even when a defender is occasionally in his face. Because living and dying with the status quo will result in a quick death come playoff time.
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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