Round One Knocks

After the Wolves lost game-one against Dallas on Sunday, coach Flip Saunders defended his chronically boneheaded desire to keep guard Anthony Peeler on the court in the fourth quarter: "The makeup of our team, when it gets down to crunch time, we have players who shy away from taking shots. [Peeler] doesn't shy away from taking shots." I couldn't help but think of Wally Szczerbiak.

Szczerbiak has been scapegoated throughout the last two months of the Wolves' swoon for being shot-oriented ball hog. Yet he shoots 46 percent from three-point range; Peeler shoots 39 percent. Wally knocks down more than 50 percent of his shots overall, Peeler hits 42 percent. Still, as Star Tribune beat writer Steve Aschburner correctly notes in today's paper, "No one besides Kevin Garnett has more of a `green light' from the head coach to fire up shots" than Peeler.

Apparently, Szczerbiak is damned if he shoots, damned if he doesn't. Saunders and the Wolves have turned a cocky scorer--who needs to fill up the basket to compensate for his defensive liabilities--into an uncertain shooter who too often looks to pass. During the Wolves' loss to Dallas, Szczerbiak was tied for the lead in minutes played, but fourth on the team in shot attempts.

Let's move on to Kevin Garnett. Everyone from Dan Barreiro to Magic Johnson is clamoring for KG to jack up 20 or 30 shots per game, and to force up jumpers even if he is being double- or triple-teamed by opponents. Have these simplistic "experts" taken into account how Garnett has played during his seven years in the league? The guy plays an intuitive team game--which is precisely why he is so valuable. Suddenly he's getting ripped for not being Allen Iverson.

In a column before the Dallas game, Barreiro hinted that KG might be the "greatest second banana" ever to play the game. Well, the NBA has a computer-calculated measure of a player's contribution to his team; it takes into account a wide assortment of key variables, including blocks, assists, rebounds, and points. KG finished third this year, behind Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace. Sounds pretty "first banana" to me.

During TNT's post game show on Sunday, Magic said that there were times when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or James Worthy demanded the ball, and that there were times when he himself took over games. Yeah, well, if KG had a teammate the caliber of Kareem, Worthy, or Magic (any one of them, not to mention two) the Wolves' would be advancing to the second round, no questions asked. You might recall that when Magic made his heralded comeback, sans a teammates who could maximize his tremendous passing skills, he looked to shoot, early and often, and his team was a flop.

Let's get serious. The game isn't that complicated. If you have two stars on a team, you have a synergy that can take you past the first round of the playoffs. If you have one star, you aren't going anywhere. In Szczerbiak, the Wolves have a demi-star, who has been cowed from freely doing what he does best. In KG, they have a superstar who is being asked to do what he doesn't do well, at the expense of most everything he excels at.

To fixate on the prime-time gunners is to ignore the beauty of what a well-synchronized team can do, and distort the value of a single-minded scorer. The evidence abounds on this point. Toronto loses something like 14 out of 16 games when selfish gunner and indifferent defender (and, to be fair, significantly injured) Vince Carter plays, then rips off nine straight when Carter packs it in for the season. With the likes of Dikembe Mutombo and Derrick Coleman in the lineup, the Philadelphia 76ers have a commanding front-court advantage over the smallish Celtics in the playoffs, but allow Iverson to shoot them out of their strengths in a first-game defeat. After the Lakers game-one win on Sunday, everybody crows about how Kobe Bryant destroyed Portland and revels in the corny, idiotic comments of "Kobe stopper" Ruben Patterson, but Bryant misses 18 of 28 shots. A revealing television graphic late in that game shows that the Lakers are minus-four when Kobe in on the floor and plus-twelve when he's on the bench. Ya think Shaq might have had something to do with that Laker win? But hey, Kobe is so flashy and so willing to hog the ball in crunch time, that he's the one who gets feted.

I was born just outside of Boston in 1953. My lifelong love of basketball was fostered watching the Celtics win NBA championships every year but one from 1959 to 1968. Their best player was the incomparable Bill Russell, who rarely shot the ball and wasn't very good at it when he had to. But the Celts, led by Russell's defense and rebounding, had a marvelously cohesive team. Sure, times have changed some since then, but not by as much as you might imagine. People forget that the guy now most associated with last-second heroics, Michael Jordan, didn't start winning rings until he learned how to share the ball, had a pretty fair teammate named Pippen, and let a relatively obscure but wide-open backcourt mate named John Paxton take the championship-deciding shot to earn one of his team's titles.

Who were the most pleasantly surprising, improved teams in the league this year? The New Jersey Nets, who brought in point guard Jason Kidd to distribute the ball (the weakest aspect of Kidd's game is shooting); and the Detroit Pistons, who the year before had a player, Jerry Stackhouse, who garnered a higher percentage of his team's points than anyone in the league. When Stackhouse was gunning, the Pistons were losing. With Stackhouse sharing the ball and not necessarily being the de facto go-to guy when it matters, the Pistons are winning.

If you want to rip Kevin Garnett for this season, rip him for whatever role he had in alienating Szczerbiak. If you want to rip him for Sunday's performance, rip him for allowing Dirk Nowitzki to drive past him for a lay-up (and one, with KG's foul) during a key third-quarter possession. Meanwhile, don't be surprised if Garnett finally buckles to the intense criticism he's getting and goes something like 13-30 against Dallas tomorrow night, including some forced shots down the stretch. Some of them might go in; the Wolves might even win the game. But I'm picking Dallas, who sport Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley as viable crunch time options. The Wolves can only hope that the Mavericks go to their version of Anthony Peeler, the ever streaky Nick Van Exel, who Barreiro admires because he's not afraid to shoot in the fourth quarter. I say the Wolves lost any chance of winning this series back in February and March, when they planted seeds of doubt in Szczerbiak, their best pure shooter, then implicitly demanded that KG take over. Now the team is looking to Anthony Peeler during crunch time. God help them.

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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