For those of you unable to stay up until the early morning hours to catch the Wolves' thrilling overtime victory in Game Three, you have my sympathy. Monday night's utterly intense 114-113 win did more than reestablish Minnesota's home-court advantage and put the Wolves up 2-1 in the series. It also enhanced the psychological edge KG and company have gained over Sacramento in the course of beating them five of the last six games. Four of those contests have been nail-biting toss-ups dependent upon the slightest smidgen of grit and luck--and the Wolves have won every one. After a while that consistency begins to lodge in the heads of players and coaches on both sides.
What's more, when it comes to match-ups and substitution patterns, the Wolves' weaknesses seem readily remedied, provided Flip Saunders opens his eyes and his mind to what has and hasn't worked in the past three games. By contrast, the Kings' problems seem less tractable. Here are my hit-and-run observations on what has transpired in the series thus far.
- By putting Latrell Sprewell on Mike Bibby, the Wolves have cut off the head of the Kings' offense on occasion, and consistently taxed Sacramento into working mightily to settle into their ball-moving half-court sets. This has transformed the Kings into more of an individual, jump-shooting ballclub. As often happens, Spree's monster contribution on defense over the past two games has energized him at the other end of the court, where he has been much more active in going to the hoop and seeking seams in the Kings' D.
- Sam Cassell needs to calm down, stop his incessant cajoling, whining, and tantrums, and move his feet more than his hands and mouth on defense. Replays of the foul called on Cassell in Game Two that had him going ballistic--picking up one technical and probably earning another that would have gotten him tossed from the game--clearly showed him hooking Doug Christie's waist. It seems probable that the refs also caught the replay and Cassell's erroneous overreaction, and became peeved at the way Sammy tried to show up their colleagues (since referee crews change from game to game).
That's the best explanation I can muster for the incredible spew of whistles on Cassell on Monday night. The five fouls that officials called in the two minutes and nine seconds he was on the court in the fourth quarter amounted to a make-up ejection after their restraint in Game Two. Yes, some of the calls were dubious, especially the last one, in which Cassell didn't even seem to make contact with anyone.
But Cassell's lackluster commitment to staying in front of his man has to improve at least a little. The price the Wolves pay for using Spree to shut down Bibby is risking Christie going off on Cassell. Sammy must appreciate that every stop he makes on defense is worth one of those jumpers he cans at the other end.
- It's time--long past time, really--that Saunders accepts the fact that Michael Olowokandi is a plague on the Wolves at least half the time he steps on the court. Without question, playing Kandi will be a necessary gamble if and when the Wolves advance to the next round against either L.A. or San Antonio. But Minnesota may never get there if Saunders continues to try to keep Kandi "game ready" by leaving him in the rotation for this series. It took three fouls apiece on Kandi and Ervin Johnson to force Saunders's hand in the direction he should have been following all along--playing Mark Madsen.
The Mad Dog's tenacity under the boards at both ends, plus his pair of monster dunks, belies Saunders's contention that Madsen does not offer enough of an offensive threat to deter Sacramento from swarming Garnett. I'd argue that by allowing the Mad Dog to run free, the Kings are more vulnerable on D than if they stick a man on Kandi or Gary Trent and give KG a little more room to operate. That's because Garnett is smart enough to pass out of double and triple coverage, and because KG's offensive effectiveness has more to do with whether he has his shooting touch than who is guarding him. I've seen him both miss relatively open jumpers and score with two guys in his face plenty of times in both playoff series. And it doesn't take a genius to see that, even on offense, Madsen has been more effective than either Kandi or Trent against the Kings.
- Saunders also should realize by now that substituting Darrick Martin for Cassell instead of going with his three shooting guards--Spree, Trenton Hassell, and Fred Hoiberg--in the backcourt should only be done during the briefest, most inconsequential points of the game, when it is vital that a member of the SG trio gets a rest. Hats off to Martin for sinking three of four free throws in the final seconds of the fourth quarter Monday, but let's not have a CBA journeyman in a position to determine Minnesota's fate. Not only are Hassell and Hoiberg much better defenders than Martin, but they protect and pass the ball at least as well. And they're far shrewder and more capable of determining their proper shot selection. Martin is too easily baited into taking those open jumpers and following the seemingly open paths to the basket that opponents provide him. But his J is unreliable and he can't finish in the paint, which is why he's shooting 28.6 percent during the playoffs. (And only 60 percent from the line, making Monday's free throws even more of a godsend.)
Put simply, the Wolves should stick with what has worked for them throughout the season. Saunders and McHale continually preach that overall talent is not as important as putting the five guys who play best together on the court. Well, since early December, that optimal quintet has been EJ, Hassell, KG, Spree, and Cassell in the first quarter and Madsen and Hoiberg paired with the Big Three at crunch time. That's because Freddie and the Mad Dog are the ultimate role players, as wise as they are modest. They devote their minutes to enabling the Big Three while being ever alert to the opportunity, when all else has failed, of stealing a rebound, forcing a turnover, converting a put-back, or nailing a wide-open jumper.
Now there may be times when the extenuating circumstances--the need to guard a red-hot Peja Stojakovic with Hassell, or Madsen's ineptitude at the free-throw line--requires a different lineup down the stretch. But I'm guessing more good than bad things will happen by sticking with Madsen and Hoiberg at the end of close games. They certainly have thus far.
- The determination of Kings coach Rick Adelman to limit his rotation to seven players is hurting Sacramento. In particular, Adelman's refusal to even experiment with deploying Darius Songaila for brief interludes is a mystery, given that the constant traps and rotations to deter Garnett take a toll on his stalwart septet, two of whom are fighting leg or foot injuries. There is ongoing talk of returning Bobby Jackson to action despite a nagging abdominal injury that Jackson believes should keep him on the sidelines. If the Kings go down 3-1, Jackson's emergence in Game Five at Target Center on Friday is almost a certainty, and I'm sure the Kings management would prefer it happen even sooner.
Jackson playing at even 60 to 70 percent of his capabilities would be a huge lift for Sacramento, both for giving Christie and Bibby a break and for the game-turning disruption he could wreak with steals and put-backs. Of course the streaky Jackson could also torpedo the Kings' hopes, and if he isn't right, Sacramento always has the option of expanding minutes for Anthony Peeler, who, believe me folks, is due for a big game.
- I expect the Kings to find a way to win tonight, if only because this wacky series seems destined for at least six games. But if Saunders minimizes the folks who have hurt this team--Kandi and to a lesser extent Martin--and if Cassell can do a better job defensively, then the Wolves have a legitimate chance of bringing this game down to the wire once more. And recent history says that's when Minnesota proves it is the better team.
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