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Slumping

Unless you've gotten lost on your way to the personals ads and stumbled into this column by mistake, you know that the Minnesota Timberwolves have been suffering through a rather spectacular slump over the past two weeks. Here's my take on why things have suddenly gone so horribly wrong and what has to happen for the Wolves to bounce back.

 

Inexperience as an elite team

Admit it: When the Wolves won 30 of their first 40 games, a part of you felt like it was too good to be true. Well, for all their outward signs of confidence, somewhere in the recesses of their psyches the Wolves' players probably felt the same way. Five straight years of losing in the first round of the playoffs have made it imperative for the team to take a step forward this season. They truly believe they can--and until two weeks ago, all the evidence supported that belief--but they can't know it. When your year-end fortunes neither progress nor regress for a solid half-decade, a vague but insidious pressure builds. And when, for the first time in the history of the franchise, you start to get a finger hold on the next rung of the ladder, it's easy to overreact a bit when your grip starts to slip.

Even elite teams experience slumps at various points during a season. But rarely are they as dramatic and comprehensive as the one the Wolves are enduring. After ranking among the best rebounding and most accurate shooting teams in the league, Minnesota was suddenly getting pounded on the boards by the likes of Detroit and Toronto, and converting less than 40 percent of their shots against Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Meanwhile, teams have been able to score at will on a defense that had become slightly above average. The nadir came midway through the Cleveland game a week ago, when the Wolves were outscored 45-4 by a club that had lost 12 straight games. When your performance is that putrid, you're either not trying or trying too hard--you're quitting or you're panicking.

The Wolves haven't been quitting. Instead, they've been racing around without discipline at both ends of the court, disrupting the rhythmic cohesion that is so crucial to their passing offense and matchup zone and man-to-man defenses. Since the Cleveland fiasco, they have improved somewhat, but still go through stretches in every game where they needlessly try to force good things to happen, rather than, as the clichè goes, letting the game come to them. If lack of effort were the problem, it would be easy to cite a malingerer or two and remove them from the situation. But for the past two weeks, there hasn't been a single player on the roster performing as well, let alone better, than he did earlier in the season. Put simply, the Wolves are pressing.

 

Injuries

The Wolves' two most physical players, Gary Trent and Joe Smith, have both missed extended time with injuries this season and it is somewhat of a surprise that Trent's absence has been the greater loss. That's because, in basketball parlance, Smith is a grinder and Trent is a banger. Smith works mightily to body-up his man on defense and gain inside position for rebounds, but he lacks the brute strength to punish an opponent who tries to score on him (more often he goes flying backwards, drawing a charging foul) or to create space around the basket when going up to corral an errant shot. Trent punishes people (be it through picks, fouls, or simply jousting for position) with jolts they feel the next morning, and possesses both the sinew and the savvy to clear maneuvering space for himself and his teammates under the hoop.

The other members of the Wolves' front line--Kevin Garnett and Rasho Nesterovic--are finesse players who thrive when given more room to operate down in the low post. In other words, they're better at grinding than banging, making Trent's skills more complementary and less redundant in the overall mix. Because Trent had been injured the previous two seasons, the Wolves were able to pick him up as a bargain basement free agent, in the hope that he had healed enough to provide the team with some sorely needed muscle. But when healthy, Trent has been more versatile than expected. With the possible exception of Rasho, he has been the team's most polished and reliable scorer in the low post. More importantly, he has been quick enough to guard many small forwards, providing coach Flip Saunders with another option when he wants to rest KG.

The bottom line is that when Smith went down with a calf injury, the Wolves plugged Trent into the starting lineup and won seven straight games. Conversely, Minnesota's slump began not long after he sprained his ankle against the Lakers on January 11. After returning ten games later to help the Wolves beat Boston on Friday, he retweaked the ankle in Sunday's loss to Sacramento. If and when he can regain his stellar form of early January, he'll shore up a front line bedeviled by Smith's tendency to rack up fouls and Rasho's maddening inconsistency.

Getting point guard Terrell Brandon in shape and in sync is at least equally important to the team's long-term prospects. Yes, I am well aware that the Wolves played inspired ball during the 16 games Brandon missed with a knee injury. But that was primarily because both KG and Wally Szczerbiak were performing at peak efficiency during that stretch. It's unreasonable to expect that to continue indefinitely--it already hasn't--or to imagine that Minnesota can win a playoff series against one of the other four elite teams in the West with backup Chauncey Billups at the point. For the Wolves to take that all-important next step, they need to play better defense on the perimeter and maximize their trademark, quick-passing offense by recognizing and exploiting individual matchup advantages. The odds of either one happening greatly diminish if Billups is the starter.

When Brandon is on his game, he can dictate the flow and tempo of an offense and bolster the confidence of his teammates in ways that Billups simply can't match. Last week against Atlanta, for example, the Wolves were suffering through one of their slump-oriented droughts and the undermanned Hawks surged into the lead. In the space of just three minutes, Brandon stole the ball twice, fed the cold-shooting Garnett for an easy basket that got the superstar back in rhythm, and wisely buried a shot after a feed from Garnett that restored KG's faith in ball movement. Four nights later against Philadelphia, Brandon set up Szczerbiak for a couple of easy hoops that banished the lingering doubts Wally might have been experiencing after his terrible performance against Cleveland the previous game.

But the improvement in offensive flow and trust is only part of the potential upside Brandon has over Billups. As KG said after Sunday's loss to Sacramento, "With me and Wally on the team, I never worry about us on offense. The key [to ending the slump] is for us to focus on playing better defense." While Brandon has been inconsistent at best on D, he's still a better bet than Billups. KG's right: Leaving aside the inexperience and injuries and concentrating strictly on what happens out on the court, the root of the Wolves' doldrums can be traced to breakdowns on defense. Too often, opponents have been able to either blow past Billups and Szczerbiak off the dribble, or drift to the perimeter for open jump shots. When the penetration happens, the big men come out to challenge the dribbler, leaving the basket open for opposing offensive rebounds and accumulating fouls on Smith and Rasho. And when opponents can score easily, the Wolves can't get into the transition offense for easy points on the fast break. Perhaps the most pertinent statistic of the Wolves' season thus far is that the team has a record of 25-2 when holding opponents to less than 100 points. When Minnesota yields more than 100, their record plummets to 7-13.

After Brandon's return from the disabled list on January 19, it seemed as if Saunders was waiting too long to restore him to the 30-35 minutes of play that will be required if the Wolves are going to gain home court advantage in the playoffs and thus get out of their five-year rut. Now it seems that the coach's caution was warranted, however, as Brandon experienced some swelling in the knee on Sunday, and watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench as the Wolves fell to Sacramento.

Can the Wolves' regain their stride without a healthy Brandon and a healthy Trent? That's a big maybe. But in any case, it seems clear that the team won't continue to win three out of four games, as it did during the first half of the season, or lose five out of seven, as it has during the last two weeks. Can they stay ahead of San Antonio and secure home court advantage? The answer to that begins tonight, as they head into the Alamodome with a dinged up Brandon and a dinged up Trent to take on the Spurs.


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