With 2:39 left to go in the second quarter of Saturday night's playoff game with Denver, the Nuggets called timeout. They were up 12 at 48-36. Latrell Sprewell walked to the sidelines, draped his arms over animated Wolves coach Flip Saunders, looked him in the eye, and essentially told him to calm down. That's a good sign for Wolves' fans, I thought to myself, watching on television: Spree and the other vets are under control and priming themselves for a run.

We now know that Saunders was right to be agitated and should have remained so for the rest of this sorry no-contest. And Spree was dead wrong to believe that his teammates had enough gumption to follow his leadership. You can parse Denver's 107-86 thrashing in various ways--and I'll do so in a moment--but the bottom line is that the less-talented Nuggets simply wanted this game more than Minnesota. You'd think the team's long history of past playoff pratfalls would be motivation enough. Yet the fact that Wolves obviously felt they could afford to deliver such a shoddy performance tarnishes their character and does not bode well for their future series against tougher and more talented opponents.

The Wolves were out-rebounded 53-36, outscored in the paint a whopping 60-26, allowed Denver an 18-shot advantage, and didn't attempt their first free throws until there were 89 seconds left in the first half. From the top to the bottom of the roster, only Sprewell registered an above-average performance. A couple of others, Kevin Garnett and Trenton Hassell, were merely lackluster. The rest--especially Sam Cassell, Michael Olowokandi, Ervin Johnson, Wally Szczerbiak, and Fred Hoiberg, in that order--should be embarrassed by their ineptitude.

One had to expect that the Nuggets' star rookie Carmelo Anthony would rise to the occasion at least once during the playoffs, and given the collegiate-like hoopla surrounding Denver's first postseason home game in nine years, plus 'Melo's guarantee that the Nugs would not be swept in this series, Saturday night was the logical time for his emergence. The Wolves actually did a decent job defending Anthony; he deserves credit for hitting some tough shots that gave Denver some early momentum. But permitting Anthony 24 points on 20 shots was well back on the list of reasons why the Wolves got pasted. Let the autopsy show that Andre Miller thoroughly dominated Cassell, and that Denver's big men made mincemeat out of the Wolves' front line at both ends of the court.

Miller gave Cassell, who loves to post-up or sneak inside smaller guards for short jumpers, some of his own medicine. The most crucial juncture of the game occurred two minutes into the third quarter, after the Wolves had quickly pared a 13-point halftime deficit down to seven and seemed poised to reassert their series-long superiority. Twice in the space of 55 seconds, Miller staunched the momentum by going into the paint to receive passes for layups. Cassell then compounded his defensive lapses with two turnovers and a frustration foul. The Wolves never seriously threatened again.

In the two days since Game Three, there's been talk of how Cassell needs to move the ball sooner to avoid the perimeter traps. In today's Strib, Cassell himself made a show of bravado, claiming Saturday to be a momentary blip that would be rectified when the teams continue the series tomorrow night. But worrying about Cassell's role in igniting the Wolves' offense is an overblown concern. He simply missed some open jumpers that are usually automatic, and aside from Ervin Johnson's 0-1 showing from the field, the other three starters shot 50 percent or better.

The real problem is Sammy's defensive intensity, and, perhaps related to that, his stamina in Denver's thin air. Counting the Wolves' loss to the Nuggets in late March, Cassell's last two games in the Mile High City rank among the worst in his yearlong tenure with Minnesota. Worse, the 34-year-old point guard's leaden movement and poor decision-making seem fatigue-related. He has been prone to fouls that occur when jabbing hands are substituted for crisp footwork on defense, and he doesn't box out his man on defense after a shot goes up. Miller and fellow point guard Earl Boykins (who frequently played in tandem on Saturday), combined for eight of Denver's 20 offensive rebounds in Game Three, and totaled 29 points, 13 boards, and 11 assists in 57 minutes overall.

Cassell wasn't the only person neglecting to box out or go up for rebounds with a purpose. The normally reliable Ervin Johnson was too slow to handle Marcus Camby inside on Saturday, although the seven rebounds EJ hauled down in 18 minutes was a damn sight better than the single board and five fouls Kandi garnered during his mercifully scant 11 minutes on the court. Watching on television, it was hard to know whether or not referee Ted Washington had it in for Kandi, as Wolves' commentator Jim Peterson alleged. But in any case, he seemed befuddled by both the speed and intensity of the game, and was an especially toxic component of the third period meltdown that swelled Denver's lead from seven to 16 in six minutes.

With Camby in the midst of grabbing 16 rebounds and Anthony a constant threat, Garnett was frequently distracted from guarding Denver's power forwards. But KG owns at least part of the blame for Nene and Francisco Elson going a combined 10-12 from the field in just 42 minutes. By trying to react to the hordes of players crashing the boards, Garnett actually lessened his impact, and wound up with just 11 rebounds (barely over half his average in the first two games of the series) in 44 minutes.

Elsewhere, as in Game One, Szczerbiak became too enamored with trying to create his own shot, with predictable results--three turnovers, zero assists, and a 4-12 mark from the field. After falling hard flat on his back due to a flagrant foul by Chris Andersen on Saturday, Szczerbiak is doubtful for tomorrow's game. That may not be such a bad thing: Although Fred Hoiberg has been chucking up bricks, he at least knows how to move the ball and box out on the boards. Saunders has also hinted that Gary Trent may see some more time in Szczerbiak's absence, and the reprieve from purgatory may prompt Trent to establish position in the paint and rotate over to dribble-penetration better than the Wolves' other front-line performers.

Saturday night's display of overconfidence and indolence ultimately won't change the final outcome of this series--Denver simply doesn't have enough skill or experience to beat Minnesota three of the next four games. But a franchise that has folded seven years in a row in the first round needs every bit of cold-blooded invincibility it can muster. For an extended period in the second half of Game One and now in almost all of Game Three, the Wolves' passive-aggressive dysfunction has given an inferior ballclub hope and confidence. Those kinds of lapses will become increasingly costly--and inevitably fatal--as the opponents progress from the Nuggets to either the Kings or the Mavs, then the Lakers or the Spurs, and then the Pacers or the Pistons. It's time to get serious, and focused, for the upcoming grind, or horrendous defeats like Saturday night's will be the Wolves' swan song.


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