Rockets burn T-Wolves

Yao Ming is not the tallest man alive (that would be, officially, Bao Xishun of Inner Mongolia) but he is pretty close. Unlike Bao, however, Yao has monstrous calves, a sparkling smile and the ability to hit a soft turnaround jumper. Unfortunately for him and the assembled Chinese media at the Target Center on Saturday, none of this prevented him from being roundly abused by Al Jefferson. Big Al scored 34 points on 15-31 shooting, while out-rebounding the giant 13-4, despite giving up at least eight inches. All game, Yao attempted to use his long body to swallow up the smaller player only to be thrown off balance by Jefferson's quickness and miraculous footwork.  Um, I should probably mention that Houston won this one, 109-102 and that the Wolves have now lost 12 in a row.

On the most memorable play, Jefferson caught the ball at the free-throw line, froze Yao with his elastic pump fake, then drove to his right. Then, instead of attempting to beat Yao to the hoop, he picked up the ball, nimbly pivoted inside and dunked hard over Yao's flailing hand. I'll tell you, if you're looking for a reason to check out the Wolves in person this year, Al Jefferson is it. He's not tremendously big or tremendously athletic and his defense can be spotty (although he was very active against Yao and the Rockets), but dude's skills are poetic.

A Magic Number

In a chaotic, occasionally nauseous season, this game was pretty refreshing. There  were some examples of fine basketball (a crisp pick and roll between Rashad McCants and Jefferson; a gorgeous backdoor pass from Kevin Love to Craig Smith); the Wolves shot nearly 45% and were competitive well into the fourth quarter.  In many ways, they actually played well enough to win.  But they were brought low by Houston's 12-23 three-point shooting and their own mediocre showing from outside the arc (5-13, exacerbated by Mike Miller's early ankle injury).

Both Kevin McHale and Randy Foye attributed the team's three-point vulnerability to their choice to swarm Yao, who shoots over 60% near the basket. They would have better luck, they reasoned, daring Houston's relatively less consistent outside shooters to gun threes. And this tradeoff certainly contributed to the problem; Ron Artest, Shane Battier and Old Man McGrady all hit their open looks. But the Wolves have not guarded the three point line well recently and not every team they play boasts an eight footer down low. The Wolves do not rotate to open shooters terribly well and the've been soft all year against the pick and roll, allowing open looks outside as well as dribble penetration.  None of the Wolves big men are particularly aggressive in stepping out to stop the dribbler on pick and rolls. And the guards are either too tentative (Randy Foye, Rashad McCants), too slow (Kevin Ollie, Mike Miller) or too skinny and hurt (Corey Brewer, though he was game when he was in there) to effectively fight around screens. Houston's point guards, Luther Head (my stars, that is an amazing name) and the extremely quick Aaron Brooks both exploited these bad habits to get open looks off the dribble, shooting a combined  5-8 from outside.

Mr. Smith

Among the many quirky subplots this year (Rashad McCants' epic falloff, the curious disappearance of Sebastian Telfair) is the case of Craig Smith.  After a mediocre second season and a not-so-good start in which he struggled to find a niche, Smith has become probably the team's second-most dependable scorer. McHale, in particular, has chosen to highlight Smith's quickness by isolating him against bigger players and letting him drive to the hoop. Once he gets inside he is able to neutralize his opponent's height advantage with a quick little no-jumping floater which looks really wild and awkward but also goes in the basket remarkably often (Smith is shooting 60% from the floor since McHale took over). And while it was once guaranteed that Smith, pounding the ball into the floor, his head down, would shoot pretty much every time he touched the ball, he has been gaining a knack for interior passing.

But the same traits that create matchup problems for opposing teams--he is significantly quicker than most power forwards--also burn him at the defensive end. At 6'7", Smith is much shorter than nearly every other power forward in the league. And although he is incredibly strong, he struggles to play defense and rebound against taller players. Indeed, the team defends significantly better when he's off the floor--so much so, in fact, that it offsets his offensive contributions. I've often thought that Smith would excel coming off the bench for a good team, the coach carefully choosing his minutes so as to maximize his abilities, while letting him sit when the matchup was not in his favor. But on this puzzling, weirdly configured Timberwolves squad he's a starter, playing over 30 minutes a night, mopily battling against much taller fellas.

I have to say that I have an affection for the Rhino. He wears Chuck Taylors and has, on occasion, sported a mohawk. He's never one to hide his disgruntlement or frustration (though in a non-pouty, sympathetic way, I find), but he's indulgent of us non-supremely athletic millionaire types--he was even cheerful when a reporter (not this one), after that awful Clippers loss, led by asking him "what the hell is going on out there?!" I guess Craig, like so many of us, was wondering the same thing.

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