Full-Bore Ball Movement + Half-Assed Shaq = Even Series

Sometimes the simplest explanation turns out to be the best. As Phil Jackson and the rest of the Lakers opined after Friday night's game, the lackluster performance by the Timberwolves was likely due to fallout from Minnesota's game seven triumph over Sacramento less than 48 hours earlier. And having beaten San Antonio four straight before trouncing the Wolves on Friday, L.A. was probably subconsciously satisfied with a two-game split and a tad too overconfident to match the intensity of a desperate Minnesota team on Sunday.

Consequently, this series is now a best-of-five affair, with the Lakers holding home court advantage and fans still awaiting a contest where both clubs show up primed for a maximum effort. But this should not prevent the Minnesota faithful from reveling in the curious particulars of Sunday's victory.

For weeks I have been quietly lamenting the absence of the crisp half-court passing offense that was once a staple of Timberwolves basketball; a selfless, well-oiled attack featuring a wealth of assists and a minimum of turnovers. Before the season started, one wondered how the presence of point guard Sam Cassell, who prefers to dominate the ball-handling, would mesh with this trademark of teams coached by Flip Saunders. After a rocky first month, Cassell and Saunders came to a beautiful compromise, in which the individual offensive skills of Sammy, Latrell Sprewell, and Kevin Garnett were accommodated without sacrificing perimeter and weak-side ball movement.

But about a month before the playoffs, Saunders elected to short-circuit some of the outside passing game in favor trying to draw fouls by taking opponents off the dribble or pounding the ball inside. Conventional wisdom says this is what works in the post-season, and since the Wolves are still playing here in the third round, it's hard to argue against it. Except that, even as their assist-to-turnover ratio has dwindled, Minnesota has still had trouble getting to the free throw line consistently.

That was the situation coming into Sunday night's game. When Cassell's aching back forced him to the locker room after just 47 feeble seconds, it felt like disaster was beckoning. The feeling intensified when, in Cassell's stead, Saunders plucked Darrick Martin, the journeyman who nearly sabotaged the Sacramento series (the Kings outscored the Wolves by 30 points during the 42 minutes Martin was on the court). Who would have guessed that this apparent catastrophe would mark the resurrection of the Wolves' vintage half-court ball movement?

According to Garnett, with Cassell out of the game, Minnesota dramatically simplified their offensive sets. Instead of running designated plays to exploit certain individual matchups, the Wolves improvised, with no primary ball-handler or go-to guy, and lots of player movement without the ball. KG, Spree, and last year's second-leading scorer, Wally Szczerbiak, all kept the flow going and relieved the pressure on Martin, who rose to the occasion with a wonderful game. By halftime, the Wolves were up 14, with 15 assists and just three turnovers. Spree, KG, and Wally had four baskets apiece, Martin chimed in with three, and every member of that quartet had at least two assists. All three of the unassisted baskets were put-backs from offensive rebounds, meaning no field goals were created off the dribble. But the Wolves did draw fouls, with five different players going to the line for 14 free throws in the first half alone.

When the Wolves' 89-71 triumph was completed, Minnesota had registered 25 assists versus eight turnovers. The last time they had more than tripled their assist-to-turnover ratio was nearly two months ago, on April 2 against Washington, a ballclub with a sieve-like defense that allowed the second-most assists-per-game in the NBA this season. This time, the stakes were a little higher: a must-win game against the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, without the starting point guard. Bravo.

And what about the defense? When a team holds the star-studded Lakers to 71 points, on 37 percent shooting, isn't that the story? Not as much as the stats would indicate.

Yes, Spree continues to rival KG as the Wolves' post-season MVP, abetting his 17-point, eight-assist, one-turnover game with some dogged D on Kobe Bryant after some quick fouls and Szczerbiak's aggressive offensive contributions reduced Trenton Hassell to a mere seven minutes of action. Yes, Ervin Johnson deserves plaudits for his yeoman scrimmage with Shaq down in the paint. (EJ and the other trio of Wolves pivot men combined to administer 15 fouls in 51 minutes, a strategy Shaq encouraged by clanking eight of his 14 free throws, most of them off the back iron.) Yes, tough Freddie Hoiberg produced the key play of the game by stepping in front of Karl Malone as the Mailman was hell-bent for the basket. The result was a kick in the gut (or points south) for Hoiberg, and Malone's third foul, sending him to the bench with just two minutes gone in the second quarter. And yes, Saunders devised a sound strategy in having his perimeter players deny entry passes to Shaq, having KG slide over to contest layups when Shaq did get the ball, and daring any Lakers other than Shaq or Kobe to beat them from the field (instead the role players missed more than two-thirds of their shots).

But we all know that the only people who can really stop Shaq are Shaq and his teammates. "If you're the Lakers, you can't have Shaq shoot just ten times in the game," said former Laker Mark Madsen afterward. "Next game he might shoot it 30 times." Perhaps Shaq's half-assed offensive game was due to Kobe shooting early and often on Sunday, feeding into the dysfunctional rivalry for touches and dominance that lurks just below the surface between the two superstars. Or maybe, as Shaq would have it, you can just "blame it on the rain." But those who think the Wolves' defense had more to do with L.A.'s point drought than the Lakers' (specifically Shaq's) attitude, should check out the third-quarter rebounding totals.

The Lakers owned the boards in that period by a whopping 19-6 margin, including a 7-6 edge at Minnesota's defensive end. Shaq himself had three of those offensive rebounds--and just two shots in the entire quarter. By what logic does Shaquille O'Neal not go back up strong to the hoop after corralling an offensive board? In the third quarter, Minnesota was shut out of second-chance and fast-break points, and registered only four points in the paint. As mentioned, they were minus-13 in rebounds. Yet they were only outscored 19-17.

"I don't usually go four-for-ten," Shaq understated after the game. "I won't be going four-for-ten on Tuesday...I look forward to that game on Tuesday."

Indeed, Tuesday night would seem to be the occasion when this series begins in earnest. Shaq is pissed off and Phil Jackson is in whine mode. (Jackson is moaning about the Wolves "breaking the rules" with illegal back picks, a not-so-veiled effort to cajole refs into saddling KG with more fouls on Tuesday.) In the other locker room, all but two members of the Wolves can feed on the momentum of their solid-to-superlative play in a critical game, and the others, Cassell and Hassell, will be fueled by the attitude of having something to prove.

It's improbable that the Wolves can duplicate Sunday's offensive efficiency (with or without Cassell playing heavy minutes), or that Shaq will be shackled twice in a row. But anyone who thought Minnesota would be content merely to reach the conference finals was proven to be in error by the club's heartening win in Game Two. The next two games will reveal whether that was a last hurrah or the return volley in a long, genuinely competitive series.

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