Point Blank

Point guard Troy Hudson crumpled to the floor with an ankle sprain during the first minute of the Wolves game against Denver Monday night, forcing coach Flip Saunders to ride aged backup Rod Strickland for 38 minutes. Even when Hudson is healthy, I prefer Strickland, who sees the court and runs the Wolves’ offense much better than Hudson. But 38 minutes for the 36-year old vet is too much, as anyone who saw him wheeze his way through Monday’s six-turnover performance will attest.

A dog-tired Strickland only makes sense if you decide, as Saunders has, that the remaining point guard option has to be pathetic Igor Rakocevic. It’s sad to see Iggy bound around the court like a mongrel pup, as cluelessly overmatched as he is eager to please, gnawing on people’s legs as they glide past or through him on defense, and getting nonchalantly swatted to the floor (without drawing a foul) nearly every time he foolishly decides to drive to the hoop.. The McSaunders brain trust wasted a second-round pick on Rakocevic in the 2000 draft, then compounded their error by signing him to a guaranteed contract this season after a couple of years in Europe. How much does Iggy suck? Well, the Target Center faithful have adopted him as their tragicomic mascot, along the lines of Scottie Brooks or Shane Heal (or the Gophers’ Hosea Crittenden at Williams), in solidarity of what it might be like if they were the ones thrown on the court.

Hudson’s injury again raises the question of why Saunders doesn’t deploy Anthony Peeler as an emergency point guard. The issue first surfaced when the coach opted for Felipe Lopez as a backup to Chauncey Billups when Terrell Brandon went down with an injury last year. While Peeler is not as capable a defender as Lopez, he dribbles as well, has superior court vision, and has quick hands and good anticipation on steal opportunities. (The three official steals AP, playing the off-guard position, recorded against Denver cut in half the number of times he jarred the ball loose and forced a turnover.) With Lopez out for the year with a knee injury, judgments between him and Peeler are moot. But compared to little Iggy, Peeler is practically John Stockton.

Saunders’ disinclination to go to Peeler at the point is even more mysterious when you consider that the coach is one of AP’s biggest boosters, giving him far more playing time (at off-guard), then his play has warranted over the past two years. Last year, as Peeler helped the Wolves’ wilt down the stretch and collapse in the playoffs, Saunders defended him by claiming that AP was unafraid to take shots in pressure situations. I guess it didn’t matter that making those shots was problematic.

Indeed, one could argue that shooting accuracy–at least with respect to the mid-range, two-point shots that have long been the bread and butter of the Wolves’ offense–is the weakest part of Peeler’s game. AP has received plenty of scorn from fans and commentators in recent years precisely because they have bought into the idea that scoring is AP’s primary responsibility. In fact, Peeler does the "little things" nearly as well as the overrated Joe Smith. He excels at making the middle pass, the smart feed that sets up the assist-making dish–if the NBA doled out multiple assists like they do in hockey, his total would double. He’s pretty good at recognizing when to switch, rotate and otherwise help out on defense. He understands spacing and how to get open, even if he has difficulty converting those open looks (which, more often than ever before, he is passing up this season). His dribbling, while sub-mediocre for a point guard, is quite good for an off-guard, especially when compared to Kendall Gill, or that kamikaze kid Wally Szczerbiak.

Putting AP at the point for 10-15 minutes a game while Hudson is out (and maybe 3-5 minutes after Hudson is healthy) would rest Strickland without having to abandon a savvy, proactive presence out on the perimeter. Unless they ply him with massive doses of Ritalin and steroids, the Wolves’ aren’t ever going to get that from Iggy. Finally, Peeler at the point would more frequently situate him outside the three-point line, where he has been a demonstrably more productive shooter for the past two seasons. (I’ll make my case for the Wolves shooting more threes as a team in next Wednesday’s paper edition of City Pages.) At the very least, Saunders should experiment with AP running the show. It certainly can’t be any worse than using Peeler at off-guard beside hapless Iggy in the backcourt.

The ever-upbeat Saunders professed his happiness with the Wolves’ play after his team rallied from a 15-point first-quarter deficit to beat the Nuggets Monday, but anyone who saw the game knows that his team would have been toast against practically any other NBA team. Coming off a horrendous loss to Toronto, the Wolves’ lackluster performance against Denver is another sign that they could easily be the odd team out when the Lakers inevitably barge their way into the top eight playoff spots later this year. With Phoenix and Houston benefiting from the addition of their marvelous rookies (and nothing Amare Stoudemire and Yao Ming have done over the past two weeks lessens my belief that Stoudemire is the better player), Utah finding the right complement to Stockton and Malone in Matt Harpring, and Portland flourishing with Scottie Pippen at the point, it figures to be an uphill battle for the locals to make the postseason.

That’s why this week’s three-game road trip is somewhat crucial for the Wolves. Tonight they play a Clippers team that matches up pretty well with Minnesota. Consider the Rasho-Olowokandi joust at center to be a wash, and hope that Joe Smith can earn his paycheck for a change by slowing down Elton Brand, and that Kevin Garnett outplays Lamar Odom enough to offset the huge edge the Clips have at point guard (Andre Miller versus Rod Strickland). That leaves the off-guard matchups between the Wolves’ Szczerbiak-Gill-Peeler trio and the Clips’ Marco Jaric (who burned them last time they played) and Quentin Richardson. If form holds and the Wolves’ beat Golden State on Friday and lose to Portland on Saturday, the outcome against the Clips will determine whether they gain or lose ground in the playoff race. My prediction: despite a big game off the bench by Marc Jackson and lots of points from Wally, the quartet of Brand, Miller, Odom, and Richardson, in that order, lead the Clips to victory.

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