Jefferson leaves black hole
As Bradley Campbell dutifully, morosely reported earlier this week, Al Jefferson, the Timberwolves' finest player, is, like his buddy Corey Brewer, laid low with the PB&J of knee injuries, the ACL tear (that's Anterior Cruciate Ligament to you, guy). As Tuesday night's quiet, dreary 110-102 loss to the Raptors made clear, the big fella will be missed. The only good news is that his injury status has been upgraded from "Out Indefinitely" to "Out for Season." Wait is that good news? Dudes, this is harshing my mellow.
It's a particular shame because since he was left off the All-Star team, Al has gone rather buck wild (on the offensive end at least; he did get roundly schooled by both Andrew Bynum and Yao in that time). In those six games, carrying an extra load for a team that become mired in a spell of pretty rotten shooting, he shot 53% and averaged 26.5 points and 14.3 rebounds per game, all the while playing with what seemed like a renewed verve.
His defensive shortcomings notwithstanding, Al is unquestionably the Wolves' best player and is arguably the most skilled low-post scorer in the league--the only real trace of silver lining is that his game is not built on explosive athleticism (to put it mildly), but rather on unbelievable instinct and skill, things not likely to be too much affected by a knee injury. Still, for a team that has now lost seven of eight games, this is nothing but bad news.
In many ways, the loss to the Raptors was an object lesson in just what the Wolves are now up against. The Raptors were also playing without their best player, Chris Bosh, although, unlike the Wolves, they still boasted two seven footers in the front court. Also, unlike the Wolves, they appeared (with the exceptions of Joey Graham and Jose Calderon) to have no desire to play basketball and also, as suggested by the many exasperated glances they cast around, to strongly dislike one another. For a team whose genesis is an action movie, they sure didn't seem to be having any fun. When the Wolves, with an inspired spurt of defensive energy, transition play and three-point shooting, erupted for a 15-0 third quarter run, the Raptors, despite their serious height advantage, looked to have lost their will to fight back.
But then, as the game tightened up and fatigue set in (Rashad McCants and Craig Smith are also out, the former fighting an apparently vicious flu, the latter a cracked rib), it became all the more obvious just what the Wolves were missing. Randy Foye's various stabs at late game heroism notwithstanding, Big Al plainly provided the dependability and emotional stability that carries a team when the game becomes intense and manic. Without him, the team looked lost and un-moored, searching vainly for a center of gravity. I swear that was not a pun.
The Future is Wild
Ironically, although defense--of both the man-to-man and team varieties--was by far Al's most glaring shortcoming, the team seemed to miss his defensive presence even more than his scoring. Against Toronto, the Wolves' defense "collapsed" (not in a good way), said coach Kevin McHale. The team's rotations and help defense, already pretty shaky with Jefferson were "a disaster" (McHale again); all night, the Raptors found eerily vacant lanes to the hoop and wide open jumpers. And Kevin Love proved neither strong, tall, nor experienced enough to guard even a hobbling Jermaine O'Neal, who burned him for 10 fourth quarter points. It turns out that even an undersized, frequently puzzled, intermittently motivated big man is better than none at all. It's possible that the seven foot, Stanford educated Jason Collins--who, on Tuesday, saw his first court time since McHale took over--could help matters, but to watch the big guy gasping and wheezing his way through nine first half minutes, I'm not holding my breath.
So what can we expect from these Wolves when the season resumes next week? Certainly, logic would dictate that both Collins and Mark "Mascot" Madsen (sorry Calvin Booth, your face is just too thin) would see a little floor time. I mean, after all, Kevin Love isn't going to have to guard Shaq, right? More likely, given this teams surplus of wing players, we're gonna see some really small lineups, we're gonna see some serious pace and we're gonna see some gunning (Mike Miller, I believe the time is now). I don't know if this bedraggled team will win another game but, with any luck, things might just get wild. And, shit, get ready for Kevin Love on Shaq.
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