Is It Happening Again?

With less than a dozen games left in the 2002-03 season and home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs in their grasp, the Timberwolves picked a hell of a time for their annual swoon. In previous years, the team has usually embarrassed themselves for a stretch of games in December or early January. Until late last week, the absence of a confidence-sapping display of ineptitude provided good reason to kindle hope that the team would pry the monkey of playoff failure of its back. But now, the Wolves' disgraceful performance over the past three games instead gives succor to the cynicism of longtime fans who wondered when and how the ball club would careen back to its familiar dysfunction.

Getting beaten on the road in Orlando by the superstar heroics of Tracy McGrady by itself would have been a forgivable lapse, even though it involved blowing a seven-point lead in the final three-and-a-half minutes. But allowing the woeful Miami Heat to sink 62 percent of its shots en route to that team's largest margin of victory this season was pathetic. And following that up with another display of half-assed defense that enabled Dallas to ring up a season-high 39 assists and cruise to a 36-point lead in the fourth quarter is psychologically toxic.

Dreadful outings like that demand that specific players be called out. The two Timberwolves who should have trouble looking at themselves in the mirror this morning are Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson. Both are gunners at heart, addicted to the adrenaline rush of nothing-but-net jumpers. Both have less appetite for the unglamorous aspect of basketball known as defense. Both could be seen with their jock straps twirling around their ears as the opponents they were theoretically guarding continually blew by them for lay-ups, open jump shots, or easy assists when the other Wolves rotated on defense to cover for their incompetence.

For what it's worth, excuses can be made for Hudson. He's already logged over 500 more minutes of playing time than his previous career high, in a role that gives him more responsibility for running an offense than ever before. The bum groin of fellow point guard Rod Strickland and the limitations of his back-up, Mike Wilks, have made it fairly imperative that Hudson maintain this workload, despite a minor but nagging leg injury.

Wolves fans can only hope that Szczerbiak likewise is suffering from a physical ailment that is hindering his mobility. At various points this season, Szczerbiak has stated that he takes pride in his defense and that those who consider him below average at that end of the court are not giving him enough credit. The past two games should disabuse him of those illusions. Against Miami, Szczerbiak spent a lot of time finding the best position in which to admire the offense of rookie Caron Butler, alternately back-pedaling to get a full-frame perspective on Butler's jumper and accompanying him down the lane for a close-up look at Caron's layup. On offense, Szczerbiak and Hudson took turns rushing up misguided three-pointers that short-circuited the Wolves' inside-outside scoring scheme and provided more fast-break opportunities for Butler and his teammates. When it was over, Butler had 35 points and seven assists, the normally snail-paced Heat had racked up 30 fast-break points (the Wolves had seven) and Saunders was bitching about his team's selfish play.

Against Dallas, Hudson and Szczerbiak heeded their coach's criticism--on offense, at least--and were more reticent to shoot. Hudson, who had clanked nine of ten three-point attempts in the previous two contests, didn't jack up a single trey. Szczerbiak passed up some open looks, registering no points (and only one shot) but three assists in the first quarter. But as Saunders noted after the game, Dallas was focusing their offense on whoever Szczerbiak was guarding, an option made easier by the fact that point guard Steve Nash was continually beating Hudson off the dribble. When the Wolves converged to stop Nash or whichever player was roasting Szczerbiak, Dallas would swing a cross-court pass to a teammate open on the perimeter for a three-pointer. They nailed 11 of 23 from beyond the arc.

Whether the mutterings about selfishness--a criticism that stung him last year--or latent embarrassment about his sorry D got inside Szczerbiak's head is unclear. But he uncharacteristically began missing wide-open jump shots from the second quarter on (his finished the game two for eleven), compounding the Wolves' disadvantage. And the rout was on. Dallas's shooting percentages in the first three quarters were 58, 56, and 60, respectively, which, coupled with Miami's 68 percent over the final three quarters of the previous game, meant that the Wolves allowed their opponents to convert a ridiculous 60 percent of their shots over a six-quarter span. That this should happen at precisely the time the team had a chance to gain the inside track for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs resurrects the question of whether the Wolves have the heart and the killer instinct necessary to take that crucial next step in the evolution of the franchise.

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