Obscured by all the bonhomie surrounding the Wolves' first-ever playoff series victory Friday night were a couple of successfully bold moves by coach Flip Saunders that may have spelled the difference in Game Five, and at the very least enabled Minnesota to breathe a little easier in the second half. By his own admission, Saunders' decision to rest Latrell Sprewell and then Kevin Garnett in the final three minutes of the second quarter was a stupid risk that Denver promptly seized upon to close out the half with a 13-0 run that hacked the Wolves' lead from a blow-out 25 to a seemingly tenuous dozen. Fueled by the reprieve, the Nuggets were the more aggressive team through much of the third quarter, and, unlike in the first half, the Big Three of Spree, KG, and Sam Cassell were clanging jump shots, ultimately finishing 1-14 from the field during the period. When Marcus Camby sank a driving lay-up and simultaneously drew Ervin Johnson's fourth foul with four minutes left in the third, Denver was down by just six-and maybe five, if Camby hit the free throw.
Saunders called a timeout and considered his response to a situation fraught with peril. For this franchise to blow a 26-point lead at home to an eighth-seeded team in a potentially series-clinching game was rapidly becoming a distinct possibility. With four fouls, EJ, his defensive bedrock in the pivot, obviously had to sit. If the Wolves were to continue the substitution pattern they had deployed for the past five weeks, that meant the reinsertion of Michael Olowokandi. But Kandi's atrocious defense on the pick-and-roll was one of the key components of Denver's comeback in the first half. So, rolling the dice, Flip went instead with Mark Madsen.
It was a gusty call, since, at the time, the only way to justify it was that Madsen might be the lesser of two evils. Certainly the Mad Dog had been nearly as ineffective as Kandi during the series, and in a brief four-minute stint subbing for KG (who had two fouls) in the first quarter, had turned the ball over once and twice more flubbed the rock enough to stall the team's passing offense.
But in addition to defending the pick-and-roll, Madsen is more adept than Kandi at creating space in the paint by wrangling for inside position and then boxing out. That's what he did after Camby missed the free throw and the Wolves had their first offensive position out of the timeout. Grabbing an errant shot, he converted the putback while being foul, and then miraculously nailed the foul shot. (Up to that point Madsen had missed five of six from the line in the series and finished the regular season under 50 percent from the charity stripe.) Two-and-a-half minutes later, he drew a fourth foul on Camby, who went over his back trying to snare an offensive rebound. (This time he made one of two free throws.) By the time Flip finally sat Madsen, he had played a crucial role in icing the game, leaving with the Wolves up by 13 with less than two minutes to go.
That fourth foul on Camby enabled Saunders to make another unorthodox but shrewd substitution, pulling point guard Sam Cassell and going with a three-guard lineup of Sprewell, Fred Hoiberg, and Trenton Hassell alongside Madsen and KG. Again, the primary justification was improved team defense. Cassell had been getting roasted by Andre Miller for most of the third quarter. What's more, he is a much better player at both ends of the court, but particularly on defense, with EJ in the game. Not only does Johnson set crunching picks that free Cassell for jumpers on offense, but he is smart enough, and has played with Sammy long enough, to know how to compensate for Cassell's idiosyncratic, occasionally diffident, approach to defense.
With Johnson on the bench with foul trouble and Miller already going off, the cold-shooting Cassell was a liability. So, when Camby was sent to the bench with his fourth foul, Saunders immediately went with a point guard-less lineup, knowing that KG could help bring the ball up and direct the offense without being unduly hassled by Camby (out of the game), Nene (slower, and already with four fouls), or Michael Doleac (way too slow). And on defense, Hoiberg had already shown in Game Four that he was capable of guarding Andre Miller or Earl Boykins out on the perimeter, especially when the Wolves helping him by moving in and out of their matchup zone scheme.
Through much of the regular season, Cassell had arguably been the NBA's most capable fourth-quarter performer, sinking more than half of his field-goal attempts, many from three-point range. But sitting Sammy for most of the final period paid off, as the Nuggets scored just 11 points in the seven minutes he was out, including just one bucket by Miller. Meanwhile, the Wolves' shot 80 percent (8-10) from the field in the last 12 minutes, with six of those baskets occurring with Cassell on the sidelines. When he did eventually replace Hassell with five-and-half minutes left to play, Cassell maintained his reputation for automatic free throws at crunch time, sinking eight straight as Denver was forced to play in desperation-foul mode.
Without question, Flip Saunders has one of the sweetest coaching situations in all of professional sports. He has a dedicated and highly-respected superstar in Kevin Garnett setting the tone on the court and in the locker room; a former college teammate in Kevin McHale as his personnel guy; and a patient, generous, relatively unobtrusive owner in Glen Taylor. But on Friday night, Saunders did his part.
Later today and tomorrow: A Wolves-Kings preview, as well as a look at other second-round matchups.
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