Nice Guys Finish Fifth

Finesse isn't enough. That's the lesson hopefully absorbed by the Timberwolves during their relatively successful, if emotionally bizarre, road trip through Texas last week.

Since coach Flip Saunders and personnel director Kevin McHale took over seven years ago, the Wolves have established an identity as a team that requires slick ball movement and sweet jump shots on offense to overcome defensive play that is savvy and spry in spurts, but too often suffers from a paucity of muscle and tenacity. The biggest upgrade in Minnesota's regular season performance this year has been on the defensive end. Part of it is due to the variety of zone schemes that Saunders has been able to throw at opponents under the new NBA rules. But all the chalkboard machinations in the coach's fervid brain amount to wishful thinking unless the players scamper with purposeful cohesion and, more importantly, bang, clutch, and joust as if their season depended upon it. Because it does. For proof, the Wolves' recently completed Texas three-step is submitted as Exhibits A, B, and C.

Tuesday, 2/19: Wolves 117, Dallas 100

Beating the Mavericks in Dallas without Kevin Garnett (who was attending his grandfather's funeral) ranks as the Wolves' most improbable win of the year. The keys to the victory were Chauncey Billups's insane, 24-point third quarter and the defensive clamps that the team put on two of Dallas' top three scorers, Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley. With KG absent, Minnesota stuck 38-year-old Sam Mitchell on Nowitzki and the vet turned in a beauteous display of bump-and-grind ball denial, simply outworking an All-Star opponent who is five inches taller and 15 years younger. Ever since his knee surgery, Mitchell walks with the tortured lope of a sidekick in a B-movie western, but when it was over, he had limited Nowitzki to just two field goals in ten attempts (seven shots below Nowitzki's season average).

Mitchell's act rightly received the most press. Still, the job Wally Sczcerbiak did on Wolves-killer Michael Finley also deserves notice. True, Finley missed some easy shots, but Szczerbiak's hustle harried him into a horrendous 3-for-19 shooting night, including an 0-for-5 performance from three-point range. The only one of the Mavericks generating points was Steve Nash, who hurt Minnesota by pulling up for long-range jumpers in transition as Dallas built a ten-point first-half lead. Billups personally blew that margin away with his own barrage of threes in the third quarter and, smelling an upset, Minnesota heightened its intensity and buried the Mavs by 27 points in the second half.

It's also worth mentioning that Saunders inserted center Loren Woods into KG's spot at the top of the perimeter in the team's relatively new, 3-2 zone defense. It's a taxing position that even the physically freakish Garnett admits can sap your endurance. Still, Woods doesn't see that many minutes of action and, being easily discouraged and petulant, maybe needs a small but well-defined role like this to buck up his attitude. While hardly on a par with KG's abilities, Woods possesses the height, wingspan and some of the quickness to disrupt passes and penetration out beyond the foul line, which is the primary function of the "32." Woods plays the role closer to the hoop than Garnett, so that the zone resembles more of a 2-1-2 alignment. But it's a nice wrinkle to have coming off the bench.

Thursday, 2/21: Wolves 83, Houston 89

Forty-eight hours after beating one of the top three teams in the NBA without KG, the Wolves delivered a rancid, demoralizing effort against a Rockets ballclub that was nearly twenty games under .500. Not even in blowout losses to Cleveland, Detroit, and San Antonio--where defensive chaos and a lack of confidence were primary flaws--have the Wolves performed with such listless indifference. Houston beat the Wolves to nearly every loose ball, forced more than twice as many turnovers, and walked away with a victory that wasn't as close as the score would indicate. The Rockets didn't play very well--they missed 13-of-16 three-pointers and 11-of 17 foul shots. But they possessed a rugged aggression and the Wolves' response was to roll over and play dead.

Once again, Szczerbiak and Billups had cobwebs on their ankles as Houston guards Cuttino Mobley, Moochie Norris, and Steve Francis either blew past them or drifted to an open spot for an easy jumper. The big men underneath were even worse. With Kelvin Cato sidelined early with a bum ankle, the Rockets had just one decent "big man"--Kenny Thomas, who is merely 6-foot-7. Yet Thomas knifed through the Wolves' tall timber for eight hoops in eleven attempts and joined Houston's penetrating guards to produce a whopping 52 points in the paint.

After the game, the party line was that the Wolves were affected by shock and sadness after having just learned that their longtime teammate Dean Garrett had been traded to Golden State. If true, this reveals a mental flaccidity and dearth of professionalism that could jeopardize the team's chances of advancing in the playoffs this season. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the lone player who acquitted himself honorably against the Rockets was Mitchell, who is also the only member of the team's active roster to go beyond the second round of the playoffs. Friendship and team unity is generally a good thing. But as they head into the final seven weeks of the season, the players should have been heartened by the news that the trade was bringing them a valuable resource (power forward Marc Jackson) rather than bemoaning the departure of a nice guy whose contribution was minimal and getting smaller all the time.  

Saturday, 2/23: Wolves 112, San Antonio 88

As with the Dallas game, the Wolves cede a significant lead to a quality opponent in the first half of a road game, then roar back for a convincing triumph. Whether the squad received a tongue-lashing from Saunders or appropriately sought to atone for their embarrassing performance two nights earlier, the attitude and execution were 180 degrees removed from the Houston fiasco.

To put it in the starkest terms possible, the Wolves' kicked San Antonio's ass. It was a bruising, playoff-style contest, a war of attrition that had Szczerbiak bleeding from an elbow to the head and then later sidelined with a bad back. Likewise, Billups sat out much of the second half after San Antonio guard Terry Porter plowed into his ankle scrambling for a loose ball. It didn't matter. Minnesota's relentless physical play wore the Spurs down and then wore them out. When it was over, San Antonio had fewer rebounds (25) and more turnovers (22) than in any of their previous 54 games. After converting 62 percent of their field goals en route to a 56-47 halftime lead, they shot just 30 percent in the second half and were outscored 65-32.

Defensive heroes abounded. Garnett was Garnett, a gazelle with the heart of a lion. Szczerbiak limited Steve Smith--the NBA's most accurate three-point shooter this year--to two field goals in eight attempts. And with seven blocked shots and staunch interior defense, Rasho Nesterovic has now played his two best games of the year against San Antonio's twin towers, David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

But the two eye-opening performances belonged to Marc Jackson and Will Avery. Freed from the dysfunction at Golden State, where he was signed to a fat contract and then languished on the bench, Jackson is obviously ready to do whatever is asked of him for Minnesota. Just as obviously, the coaches have told him to bang for rebounds and defensive stops. Inserted early into the game for Joe Smith (who is missing open jumpers and accumulating fouls at an alarming rate), Jackson's debut with the Wolves was the sort of bull-in-a-china-shop affair not seen since Gary Trent went down with assorted injuries more than a month ago. Just seconds into the game, he bowled over David Robinson while trying to establish himself in the low post. It was the first of five fouls he would receive in 21 minutes of play; and most of them were tone-setting fouls that send opponents sprawling and soften their resolve.

Before, with Trent hurt, the Wolves would substitute Anthony Peeler when Smith inevitably got into foul trouble, creating a smaller, less wiry, and far less imposing quintet on the court. Jackson buys time for Trent to heal this season, and will in all likelihood replace him when another team offers a better deal than the Wolves can produce (due to salary cap rules) at the end of the season. All of this for Dean Garrett and a second-round pick. Good work, Kevin McHale.

The second half of the San Antonio game may well be Avery's finest hour in a Timberwolves uniform. With the meter on his NBA career about to flash red due to lack of ability, Avery played like he understood how precious his minutes have become, the adrenaline of the survival instinct coursing through his veins. Buoyed by encouragement from his teammates in the huddle after Billups went down, he drove the lane for an "and one" lay-up and sank the ensuing free throw. More importantly, he shut down the outside jumpers of Terry Porter and the penetration of Anthony Parker, an unexpected bonus that helped turn a tight game into a laughter down the stretch.

Now that Dallas has landed seven-foot center Raef LaFrentz-a superb shot-blocker and silky outsider shooter who is a perfect fit for their system-in a highway robbery trade with Denver, the Wolves' chances of winning the Midwest Division and securing a relatively easy first-round playoff opponent have become even more remote. Right now, Dallas, Sacramento, and the Lakers all appear to be superior teams, leaving one playoff slot open for home court advantage in the opening round, albeit against the fifth place team, which will almost certainly be San Antonio.  

Given the vast edge in playoff experience that the Spurs hold over the Wolves, Minnesota needs to avoid sliding into fifth (and a series where San Antonio has home court advantage) at all costs. More than any other single factor in this regard, their fate will be determined by their physical tenacity on defense. Saunders's zone schemes are a handy asset, but difficult to deploy in the transition game when Minnesota's shots aren't falling in the hoop. When the Wolves have slumped, it has been because their defense, either due to chaos or indifference, has let them down.

With Trent on the mend and a schedule that includes ten out of twelve games at home against mediocre opponents in mid-to-late March and early April, Minnesota may yet find a way to overtake one of the top three and further enhance their chances of a first-ever playoff series win. But as crunch time approaches, the team is already well-positioned to be the favorites in a series against the Spurs. Now, it is all about defense. And as the play of merely average athletes such as Mitchell, Jackson, and Avery proved last week, defense is all about desire.


Britt Robson posts his Timberwolves column online at every Monday during the NBA season--and maybe more frequently, if the mood strikes him.

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