Standing On The Edge Of Getting It On

THE MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES are in a precariously hopeful position right now, as befits an 11-27 team fresh off a winning streak. Anyone who watched the Wolves rattle off three home victories and take New Jersey into overtime on the road last week can see that they are playing with a higher degree of panache and partnership, embracing the more clearly defined individual roles limned out by new coach Flip Saunders. Set against a franchise history of unremitting ineptitude, however, any show of grace and gumption that extends beyond a game or two feels suspiciously fragile. On the other hand, the improvement could last a little longer this time.

Saunders is the obvious place to begin. When he said after a long six-game road trip that the Wolves were a better team than when they'd left, it sounded like bullshit: Their only win, after all, was against a crumbling Phoenix club that has since fired its coach. Yet the Wolves are better, and Saunders has made a difference in subtle, significant ways.

Although much has been made of his "new system," Saunders's chalkboard diagrams are probably the least of his contributions. The most salient difference is that when Saunders sees a player matchup he can exploit, he hammers at it until the opponent adjusts, then hammers at the opportunities the adjustment opens. This tactically aggressive style requires an acute awareness of each player's strengths and weaknesses--an aptitude that's also served Saunders well in developing substitution patterns. While he hasn't tampered much with the total minutes each of the Wolves plays, he's made some key adjustments in when those minutes happen. The most noteworthy example is the case of Kevin Garnett, who has averaged about 19 minutes per game throughout the season, but plays a lot more at vital times--like the fourth quarter of close games--under Saunders than under Blair. Despite the added responsibility, his statistics have remained constant, even gaining noticeably in his shot accuracy. Asked why, Garnett says simply, "I don't feel like I'll be pulled out of the game if I miss two shots in a row."

That contagious sense of foreboding was Blair's primary liability. A hot-wired personality under the best of circumstances, he knew he was coaching from Death Row this season; when the team inevitably failed to meet McHale's expectations, he would take the fall. When the Wolves stumbled early, Blair's courtside manner--the facial tics, whiplash body contortions, and salty language--became a pretty fair approximation of Tourette's Syndrome. Following his lead, the team strained to play harder and only exacerbated its lack of assurance. After a month on the job, Saunders's most noteworthy accomplishment has been to calm them down enough to concentrate.

Saunders has been particularly adept in his relationship with J.R. Rider. It's easy to forget that before the missed practices, the confrontations with Blair, and the Mall of America incident, Rider was a player who generally sought to pass on offense and overcome his inexperience on defense. The more he was called a punk, the more he acted like one: hoarding the ball, refusing to fight through picks. And despite the efforts of both men, his relationship with Blair never really recovered. In Saunders's first home game, by contrast, Rider gave him an aggravated look when he was benched after picking up two quick fouls. Saunders didn't take it as bait. Afterwards he told the media, "Believe it or not, J. is very sensitive. I told him I needed him too much in the second half to waste him in the first half and we were fine."

When Rider was late to a practice, Saunders said Doug West would start that night's game in his place--not for disciplinary reasons, he stressed, but because Rider's absence forced him to miss some relevant scouting and strategic information; Rider was in the game by the end of the first quarter. When Rider played lackluster defense against Indiana on the last game of the long road trip, Saunders yanked him, then made a point of announcing to the team that everybody would be subjected to the same treatment. Rather than deliver a message through direct confrontation, Saunders was aiming post-it notes at the edges of Rider's pride and psyche--all the while conveying his sense that Rider could be one of the game's elite players.

Rider's mother arrived in town from California for the Wolves' homestand last week. In the first game, against Sacramento, Rider would be guarding his former mentor, the great scoring guard Mitch Richmond. Playing arguably his finest all-around game as a Timber-wolf, Rider thoroughly outperformed Richmond at both ends of the floor, then announced he was dedicating himself to more aggressive defense for the rest of the season. So far, he has lived up to his word. Meanwhile, Saunders has been calling more plays for Rider to get the ball near the basket, where Rider likes to operate, and where Saunders is concerned about his being double-teamed. The post-it message is that Rider has earned those plays down low. At the end of the San Antonio game, the team's third straight win, Saunders approached Rider with both palms raised over his head, and the two slapped high tens. Then Rider went over and hugged his mom. Talking to him in the locker room, it's clear that he's never been happier; he's certainly never played more consistently.  

Another obvious reason for the Wolves' recent success is the reacquisition of point guard Darrick Martin. Martin, who was the last player cut from the Wolves' roster during the preseason, played well enough for Saunders in the minor-league CBA last year to earn a late-season stint in Minnesota. He was a third-string guard for the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies--one of only two teams with a worse record than the Wolves--when Saunders traded a second-round draft pick to get him back. Martin began with a bang, catalyzing the offense throughout the homestand and replacing veteran Terry Porter for key stretches in each game. While his ball-handling and all-around offensive play have improved in the past year, the jury's still out on Martin's prospects. He had some marvelous games for the Wolves last season, too, especially the first few times he received the kind of extended minutes he got last week; it bears noting that each of his last three games has been a little less effective than the one before.

The player who has benefitted most from Martin's uptempo style has been Tom Gugliotta. Coming over in a trade from Golden State late last season, Googs merely put together the best two-month stretch of any player in franchise history. This year, awarded with a huge long-term contract, his game has been maddeningly inconsistent. While he leads the team in most statistical categories, he has occasionally forced shots and played out of control; more than any other player, he seemed to absorb the angst and frustration of Blair, who also coached him as a rookie in Washington. On the recent homestand, fans saw the first consistent glimpse of the whirling dervish Googs was last year, the player who seemed to be everywhere on the court--stealing the ball, blocking shots, and making the key rebound, bucket, or pass.

That's because Googs was everywhere on the court. As he pointed out, "When Darrick's in there pushing the ball [upcourt], it tends to scramble their defense and it's easier to lose your man." At both ends of the court, few players thrive better in a freewheeling game than Gugliotta, who gets most of his blocks and steals by playing away from his man (a quasi-zone, theoretically illegal in the NBA) and then swooping in to intercept the pass or shot. On offense, the standard half-court sets can throttle his creativity; when Martin is breaking down coverage responsibilities, he frequently gets open for the shot or rebound. It's no coincidence that Googs had his marvelous months at precisely the time Martin was getting his shot last year as the Wolves' point guard.

It could all break down tomorrow, of course. A couple of close losses, a key injury, or an ill-conceived trade by the perpetually impatient McHale (Rider for Dee Brown? puh-leese) could upend it all. Amid all the uncertainty, though, there has been one constant plus on the Timberwolves this year--the inspired play of Christian Laettner. In an almost-equal number of games under Blair and Saunders, Laettner's statistics are remarkably similar: approximately 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. While many people (including me) were skeptical about his ability to switch over to the more physical demands of the center position, Laettner has relished the challenge, taking glee in the chance to show up his critics.

When Blair and McHale approach- ed him about playing center around the perimeter, where his threat as an outside shooter would draw the opposing big man away from the basket, he grudgingly accepted. "It's easier, I guess," he says, as if that were somehow distasteful. But he's done it superbly this year--he's easily the team MVP. Laettner has committed a few gaffes this year, but after three and a half seasons it's clear that there's a connection between the obtuse, contrary locker room manner and the inordinate, almost unhealthy need to win. The recent three-game winning streak was the Wolves' longest during Laettner's pro career. On the final night before catching a plane to Jersey, he could be seen ribbing Googs in the locker room, a huge smile plastered on his face. Then he went out in the hallway and scooped up a toddler, an obvious friend of the family. "What a beautiful sweater," he said over and over again, in the cutesy voice people use with infants. Then he asked her for a kiss. Life on the Wolves, for a change, is a little bit sweet.

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