For such a pivotal game, the Lakers' 100-89 Game 3 victory over the Wolves sure was mundane. For that matter, all three games played thus far have been remarkable for their lack of competitive drama.
The Wolves scored the same number of points and shot almost exactly the same percentage from the field in Games Two and Three, while the Lakers' point total jumped from 71 to 100 and their field goal accuracy rose from 37 to 51 percent. Logic would indicate that Minnesota's defense was thus the primary culprit in last night's loss. But there are a few reasons why I think the numbers are somewhat deceiving.
If Sam Cassell was a horse, they'd shoot him.
Cassell's back and hip woes were far more of an impediment to his play on the defensive end, which calls for quick reactions that can't be faked through forethought. Since Sammy is merely a mediocre defender with a healthy pair of wheels, his lope-and-wince presence afforded L.A.'s Gary Payton a golden opportunity to launch open jumpers at will. Payton scored all but two of his 18 points with Cassell in the game, and the Lakers shot 55 percent with Sammy on the court, 46 percent when he was on the bench. In other words, the healthy Wolves players weren't that bad on defense.
Efficient offense enables solid defense.
On Tuesday, the Wolves doubled the eight turnovers they committed in Game Two, creating twice as many chances for the Lakers to score in transition before Minnesota could set its defense.
The Lakers improved their offensive intelligence, intensity, and execution.
The Wolves' defensive priority (surprise) is to contain Shaq and Kobe. In Game Three, the pair combined for 44 points, only three more than in Game Two. Along with Payton, the players who really burned Minnesota were Devean George (who hit five of eight shots on Tuesday after going one-for-six on Sunday) and Slava Medvedenko (two points in 17 minutes on Sunday; six points in ten minutes Tuesday). With the Wolves playing trap-and-rotate to double-team Shaq and Kobe, these role players are always going to enjoy plenty of open looks. On Sunday, they missed those jumpers; on Tuesday they mostly converted them. If that continues, this will be a short series.
The cliché "pick your poison" typifies the Lakers offense. By ceding openings to the likes of George and Medvedenko, and playing Hack-A-Shaq, the Wolves chose the weaker poison and thus died a more lingering death. Aside from hoping for airballs from the purple and gold, about the only antidotes to this poison is to play maniacal defense and minimize turnovers on offense. An ailing Cassell complicates both sides of that equation, but it's hard to see how benching Sammy for Darrick Martin improves matters much. If I were Saunders, I'd think seriously about deploying the "big lineup" with Fred Hoiberg, Spree, Wally Szczerbiak, and Trenton Hassell mixed and matched at both guard positions and small forward, then turn to Cassell at the beginning of the fourth quarter and hope he can recreate some of his recent first quarter magic at crunch time. Of course Saunders and the Wolves would also have to hope that they aren't hopelessly behind by then. But when your all-star point guard is drastically hobbled and the Lakers are your foe, there aren't any easy options.