Playing Scared

The damage has been done. Less than two weeks ago the Minnesota Timberwolves were within a couple of games of owning the best record in the NBA. Today they rank sixth in the Western Conference and, barring an unlikely collapse by two teams in front of them during this last month of the regular season, will once again enter the playoffs as a decided underdog on the road. For the sixth straight year, a first-round exit is the most likely scenario.

Anyone who has seen the Wolves lose eight of nine games in March, including the last seven in a row, knows their confidence is kaput; that they are playing scared, expecting disaster and then fulfilling the prophecy. They have blown a handful of fourth quarter leads--most notably last Wednesday's spectacular choke against Houston, when nothing short of a total collapse was required to sustain their dysfunction. Almost without exception, their opponents have not played particularly well; the Wolves of December and January would have handily beaten them all.

In the wake of the team's collapse, the commencement of the blame game has been inevitable. Frustrated by the prospect of more playoff futility and stung by last month's poorly timed announcement that ticket prices would increase 25 percent next season, fans have directed much of their wrath toward the Wolves' two most valuable assets, superstar Kevin Garnett and coach Flip Saunders. Like nearly everyone else connected with the franchise, KG and Flip have not performed particularly well the past couple of weeks. But let's get serious. The most influential factor in the Wolves' fall from grace, after all, is pretty obvious: the season-ending injury of point guard Terrell Brandon in mid-February.

Even Brandon's legion of detractors would have to concede that he is very adept at conducting a smooth, unselfish passing game in the half-court offense, and that his quiet, steady demeanor and veteran savvy are a balm for the jitters of his teammates. With Brandon at the point the past two-and-half years, Minnesota has consistently ranked among the league's best in generating assists, not turning the ball over, shooting accurately, and scoring points. It was easy to take him and the team's offensive productivity for granted. Or, sillier yet, to criticize it. Remember the good old days, when the lament du jour was that the Wolves were too much of a jump-shooting team--one that didn't earn enough foul shots by going aggressively to the hoop?

You can't blame the current slump on team defense. During their March skid, Minnesota has actually allowed fewer points and caused opponents to shoot less accurately than they had in the previous two months. This is pretty remarkable, given how many potentially easy buckets opponents have been handed as the Wolves turn the ball over more frequently on offense. Without question, the reason this team seems poised to repeat their roll as playoff underdog is that they don't have anyone who can capably operate their trademark passing offense. Assists are down, turnovers are up, and the quiet desperation in the team's psyche is more of an obstacle than any opposing defender.

The Brandon bashers who argued that Chauncey Billups should be running the team even when TB was healthy have been discredited. Yes, the Wolves enjoyed their best run of the season with Billups at the point in January. But much of that success stemmed from the offensive momentum the club had generated with Brandon at the controls. And the Wolves were also able to compensate for Billups' lack of floor leadership due to the high-post passing of KG and the cold-blooded shooting prowess of Wally Szczerbiak. But when opponents began limiting Garnett's passing options and making Wally put the ball on the floor to get open, it was more incumbent on Billups and the rest of the team to revert to a series of short, crisp passes that would generate uncontested weak-side jump shots-in other words, to play classic Timberwolves basketball. Slowly but surely, their inability to respond this way has been exposed.

Make no mistake, the seeds of this slump were planted weeks earlier. KG's all-around excellence got him named the NBA's player of the month for February, yet the team's 8-4 record during that time actually reduced the winning percentage they had built up over the previous three months. Now, without Brandon to kick around, the sports talk-show callers are blaming Garnett. The criticism is warranted only in that KG has begun doing exactly what the critics demanded in the first place: Aggressively driving to the hoop and generally forcing the action in the low post. Against Utah on Sunday, this resulted in Garnett shooting a miserable 3 for 14 from the field, while drawing enough fouls to get to the line 12 times.

Garnett is what he is--a marvelous team player who excels at unselfish ball movement on offense and versatile, energetic play on D. At least one inch over seven-feet tall, he is prone to getting the ball stripped or blocked when he puts it on the floor down near the basket, which he needs to do because he lacks the sheer brawn necessary to consistently establish position down low against heavier opponents and double-teams. On offense, KG flourishes when he can mix his low-post game with spot-up, mid-range jump shots and discourage the double-teams by dishing to open teammates as a normal part of the passing flow. During the slump, those teammates haven't reduced the pressure on him. Joe Smith and Rasho Nesterovic frequently disappear on offense, Marc Jackson has been an abysmal butterfingers, and Billups and Anthony Peeler run hot and cold from the perimeter.

Without Brandon's superior court sense and steadying influence at work, opponents have been able to throttle the Wolves offense by concentrating on Garnett and Szczerbiak. Minnesota's team-wide panic and dread have finished the job.

The biggest flaw in KG's game is that he tries too hard, mentally and physically. An emotional player whose motor is always revved, he is prone to self-implosion when it is up to him to shoulder the scoring burden at crunch time. As I said in a column earlier this season, when the team was slumping in a less obvious fashion, the specter of past playoff defeats haunts this club. No matter how well they play at points during the regular season, they will not operate with the confidence of a truly elite team until they have put some post-season success on their resume.

It is becoming increasingly likely that this April will be the last chance for this group to get over the hump. An argument can be made that the Wolves have acquitted themselves admirably in the face of adversity. Despite losing Marbury, Gugliotta, Sealy, Smith for a year, and now Brandon, they have become a perennial playoff team. But the fans--and, judging by his recent comments to the media, Kevin McHale--have grown impatient with the club's inability to take the next step, despite the defection, death, and injury of key personnel. Unless the Wolves steal a playoff series or two, there will be a major shake-up on this club by next season.

But first, sooner or later, they have to finally win another game.


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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