Regular readers of Hang Time know that I have generally been an admirer of Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. The most capable handler of players in franchise history (besting such future Hall of Famers as Jimmy Rodgers and Bill Blair), Saunders runs a shrewd and selfless half-court offense. And he was ahead of the curve in devising effective match-up zone defenses. Saunders's bold fourth-quarter decision to go with Mark Madsen over Michael Olowokandi and sit Sam Cassell in the second half was a crucial factor in the Wolves' victory in Game Four of the Denver series.
But Saunders has not been nearly as sharp through the first two games of Minnesota's second-round match-up with the Sacramento Kings. (City Pages went to press before Monday night's game.) He was out-coached in the opener, a Wolves loss that deprived the team of home-court advantage, and very nearly blew Game Two with an assortment of questionable substitutions and personnel decisions.
Going into this series, it was obvious that Minnesota's Kevin Garnett and Sacramento's Mike Bibby were the keys to their teams' respective offenses. In the opener, Kings coach Rick Adelman came out with a game plan that called for immediate, swarming traps around Garnett whenever he set up in the low post. After the game, KG acknowledged that he was surprised and bothered by the trapping scheme, which limited him to six baskets in 21 shot attempts, and forced him into six turnovers while sending him to the free-throw line just four times. Adelman also surprised many observers by leaving his best perimeter defender, Doug Christie, on Spree, essentially conceding a big scoring game to Cassell in order to stymie the other two members of the Wolves' Big Three.
Meanwhile, Saunders primarily guarded Bibby, a clutch performer who ignites the Kings' offense in myriad ways, with the defensively compromised Cassell. In essence, Sacramento captured Game One because they were able to contain Garnett and Spree while Bibby erupted with 33 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, and four steals. Coaching made a difference.
For Game Two, Saunders ran a group of taller defenders--mostly Spree, but also Hoiberg and Hassell--who diminished Bibby's effectiveness off the dribble. And the coach brought his big men out further to shut down the high pick-and-roll. This was possible in part because Christie is hobbled by a plantar fasciitis injury and wasn't quick and mobile enough to abuse Cassell when Sammy was shifted over to cover him.
The result was Game One in reverse, with the Wolves jumping out to an early lead and tenaciously holding on while the Kings slowly but surely whittled it down. With 4:32 left in the third quarter, Sacramento was just a basket away from eliminating Minnesota's 10-point halftime margin. That's when Saunders embarked on a bevy of bewildering substitutions that helped plunge the Wolves into a hole that required a huge dose of grit--and luck--to remedy.
Saunders's first head-slapping maneuver in this stretch came when he substituted Olowokandi for Ervin Johnson. Kandi's clueless play has been documented in this space on numerous occasions. Even casual Wolves fans are aware by now that Minnesota is playing with fire whenever he takes off his sweats and ambles to the scorer's table to be announced into the game. His three-minute stint in the first half of Game One cost the Wolves eight points, from down three to behind by eleven. During his seven minutes in the first half of Game Two, the Wolves lost two points off their lead. When Saunders had hinted that Gary Trent would play in Game Two, it was assumed Trent would be eating Kandi's minutes. But instead, Trent took the place of Mark Madsen in the first half. This was a curious decision for a number of reasons. Madsen has more playoff experience than Kandi and Trent combined, plays the sort of tenacious, scrambling, paint-oriented style most suitable for the postseason, and had the best plus/minus of any Timberwolf in Game One.
And so, as Spree drove in for a layup to put the Wolves up by four, I found myself writing the following in my notebook: "razor-thin lead at crunch time of a must win--Kandi in. Bad decision?" I looked up to see Chris Webber providing a slam-dunk facial to Kandi off the dribble, drawing the foul to boot, and sinking the free throw for a three-point play. By the time Saunders finally lifted Olowokandi, with 7:22 to go in the game, the Wolves were down five.
Two minutes after Kandi went in for EJ, Saunders substituted backup point guard Darrick Martin for Cassell. Strike two. There is a reason Martin has bounced between the minor leagues and temporary NBA contracts for much of his career. Most notably his confidence is greater than his skill level, particularly when it comes to shot selection and ball handling. Saunders had brilliantly deployed his trio of shooting guards to replace Cassell late in the Denver series. Why not now? When Martin went in, Minnesota was up five; when he left four minutes later, they were up one, during which time he attempted three shots (making one) and registered zero assists.
With 9:32 left in the game and the Wolves up one, Saunders replaced KG with Trent. Read that sentence again and tell me how it makes sense. After the game, Saunders said Garnett had signaled to the bench that he needed a break. Garnett said he was tired and made a signal, but inferred that a time-out--an interminable spell during national telecasts--probably would have sufficed. The primary reason Saunders cited for playing Trent was that his offensive capabilities would relieve some of the defensive pressure on KG--but that obviously can't happen if Trent is replacing KG on the floor. By the time Garnett returned two minutes later, the Wolves' one-point lead was a five-point deficit.
There is nothing in Saunders's past behavior to indicate why he would rely on the likes of Kandi, Martin, and Trent in the fourth quarter of a must-win game that was slipping away. Indeed, Saunders is notorious for leaving KG in regular season games against patsies with the Wolves up by 15 with four minutes to play. When Denver hacked into the Wolves' lead in the first half of Game Five with KG and Spree on the bench, Saunders says he broke things in the coach's bathroom at halftime because he was so upset with himself for resting them. Finally, it's not as if the Kings, who are a finesse team anyway, were wearing the Wolves down with fresh bodies: Through the first two games, Adelman has used just seven players, including two hobbled by injuries and 36-year-old Vlade Divac, a notorious smoker.
Maybe the Wolves were able to rally from 10 points down with four minutes to play because KG and Cassell were fresh and the Kings were spent. (Despite the praise that was heaped on the Wolves' D during that stretch, Sacramento missed some open, eminently makeable shots and two crucial free throws.) In any case, the Wolves won the game and ultimately that's all that matters.
But Saunders--who knows more about basketball and his team than I do--certainly left himself open to second-guessing with his late-game substitutions. The first guess here is that the Wolves will lose this series unless he does a better job from the sidelines.
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