Just A Win
First, the obvious good news: For the first time in franchise history, the Wolves won the first game of a playoff series. Despite Denver's valiant effort, the underdog eighth seed had no answer for containing both Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell. The Wolves' zone defense and work on the offensive boards, particularly in the first half, were other key ingredients in the victory.
But a playoff series enhances the psychological as well as the physical nature of the game. By permitting the Nuggets to roar back with a six-minute, 20-3 run that shrank a 77-55 Wolves lead with 3:48 to go in the third quarter down to 80-75 with 9:41 left in the game, Minnesota missed a golden opportunity to drive a stake through Denver's heart for perhaps the rest of the series. Instead of confronting a 30-point blowout that would leave them no room for moral victories, Denver coach Jeff Bzdelik was able to note that his team "battled," while the team's rookie star Carmelo Anthony could take the perspective that this was a learning opportunity that would help him improve in future games of the series.
Denver's comeback was spurred by their ability to temporarily rectify two of the three aspects of the game that had put them in such a deep hole. In the first half, the Wolves owned the glass, even on Denver's end, garnering a dozen offensive rebounds to just 11 defensive boards for the Nuggets. But with reserve big men Francisco Elson and Chris Andersen in the game, the Nuggets grabbed nine out of ten possible rebounds off errant Wolves' field goal attempts in the third quarter, virtually eliminating Minnesota's second chance putbacks. And on offense, the Nuggets did a better job of moving the ball and not being so stymied by the zone defense deployed so effectively by the Wolves in the second quarter. The turning point came when the reserve backcourt of Earl Boykins and Jon Barry replaced Andre Miller and Voshon Lenard late in the third period. As happened during the regular season, Boykins' penetration broke down the Wolves' defensive sets, and Barry likewise upped the intensity level at both ends of the court. The Wolves, with KG in foul trouble, Latrell Sprewell bereft of his shooting touch, and Wally Szczerbiak reverting to the dribble-crazed blunderbuss that caused me to rip him so regularly in seasons past, were clearly on the ropes.
But in the end, KG and Cassell were simply too much for the Nuggets to handle. While Boykins provided Denver with a lift on offense, he was a huge liability for the Nuggets on defense. Normally, one thinks of exploiting a 5'5" mite by posting him up in the low block. But the diminutive Boykins was just as vulnerable when KG and Cassell worked the high pick-and-roll, their bread and butter throughout the game. Knowing that it was suicide to leave Boykins on KG, the Nugget guarding Garnett stayed home on the pick and roll play, leaving Cassell free on the perimeter, which also turned out to be suicide. The Nuggets inability to defend that play decided the game: In the crucial fourth quarter, Cassell was five of eight from the field, while the rest of the Wolves were three of 11.
Cassell's 40-point performance rightfully owned the spotlight after last night's win, but Garnett was nearly as important to the game's outcome. From the beginning, Denver was determined not to let Garnett beat them, deploying aggressive double and triple-teams as soon as he touched the ball. Andre Miller was one of the players assigned to double down on KG, freeing up Cassell on the perimeter. Thus, Sammy received a wealth of open looks when the Wolves had KG in the low post as well as when the two executed the high pick and roll. And when Denver began paying more attention to Cassell, KG rattled home the Wolves' final nine points of the first half. During the break, Bzdelik obviously reiterated the need to clamp down on Garnett, resulting in three Denver fouls on KG in the first 58 seconds of the third quarter, enabling the Wolves to get to into the penalty situation midway through the period. The numerous fouls on Garnett ultimately allowed Minnesota to go to the free throw line 23 times in the second half. During the regular season, the Wolves' were 31-2 when shooting more free throws than their opponent. Now, in the playoffs, they're 1-0.
Adjustments will now inevitably be made by both clubs. Denver's in a Catch-22: they need Boykins' quickness versus Cassell to create havoc on offense, but get murdered by the pick and roll when the little man is in the game. One solution might be to stick Boykins on Hassell and let Barry play Cassell on the perimeter. If the Wolves counter by substituting Szczerbiak for Hassell, that frees up Anthony on Denver's offensive end. (Neither Sprewell nor Szczerbiak were particularly effective containing 'Melo last night.) Personally, I think Hassell should remain in the game and look for his own shot if that happens. One of the heartening things about Game One was how well Hassell stood up to the pressure of his first-ever playoff game.
For their part, the Wolves need more player movement away from the ball, and more inclination to return to the crisp passing game that they have drifted away from in recent weeks. Last night, Minnesota registered only 18 assists on its 40 baskets, and piled up 14 turnovers. Saunders blamed some of that on Minnesota standing around watching Cassell jack up shots (he had 17 points and zero assists in the first half last night). In addition, Sprewell needs to regain his shooting touch after a 2-11 performance that had him turning down open looks and driving to the hoop to draw fouls (seven of his 11 points came from the free throw line). Finally, Mark Madsen, Szczerbiak, and to a lesser extent Michael Olowokandi need to step up the game on Wednesday night. If Szczerbiak continues to play like a chicken with his head cut off, Saunders needs to give Fred Hoiberg Wally's minutes in a player rotation that on Sunday essentially only went seven players deep.
The bottom line is a Wolves' win. Despite Denver's spirited second half run, it's patently obvious that Minnesota is the superior team. This still looks like a short series. But that would be more certain if the Wolves' avoid the let-up that created some anxious moments in Game One.
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