The Plucky Wolves
You've gotta love this year's edition of the Timberwolves, a snakebit team that continues to suck the venom out of their myriad wounds and plugs ahead in their quest for home court advantage in the playoffs. They drop the first three games of their brutal five-game road trip earlier this month, then bounce back to beat Phoenix and Dallas. They get mashed at home by San Antonio-would have lost by 30 if Troy Hudson hadn't gone insane for 20 points in about six minutes of the third quarter-then go up by five with four minutes left in the third quarter against the Lakers, only to lose Rasho Nestoveric to a sprained ankle in the third quarter, a game-turning event that produces another loss.
That was five defeats in seven games going into Sunday afternoon's tilt with Portland, their chief contender for fourth place and home court in the playoffs. Coach Flip Saunders, who prefers to downplay the drama unless it really matters, informed his club before the game that this was a must-win contest. Indeed, with another defeat, the Wolves would have been four games behind the Trailblazers in the loss column, with only 13 games remaining (16 for Portland). So, playing without Rasho, their second-best performer this season, the Wolves' rose up and spanked the Blazers, 111-95, on the strength of another triple-double by KG, an inspired game from back-up center Marc Jackson, and superb three-point shooting.
Nobody has defended Garnett better this year than Rasheed Wallace in the Wolves' first game with Portland at the Target Center back in December. On Sunday, with seven feet of 'Sheed in his face, KG missed his first five shots. Rasho, his favorite interior passing partner when his own jumper isn't falling, was on crutches behind the bench. It looked like a long afternoon. But Garnett steadily got better. Twenty-five seconds after 'Sheed went to the sidelines for a breather, Anthony Peeler found him for an alley-oop dunk, his only points of the period. In the second quarter, he added two more buckets and three assists, then went off for nine points, five boards and three more assists in the decisive third quarter. With five minutes left in the game and Wolves up by 19, he fed Wally Szczerbiak in the corner for a trey that secured his tenth assist and fifth triple-double of the year. Call it MVP exhibit #429 or so.
Meanwhile, Jackson was erupting for a near double-double-ten points, nine rebounds-in the second half alone. When Kevin McHale traded Dean Garrett for Jackson in the middle of last year, he was an overweight lug, who, after a brief flurry of "I'm outta Golden State!" inspiration, was a pathetically slow, undersized pivot man with a bad attitude that contributed to the team's locker room funk down the stretch and into the playoffs. This year, he showed up in shape and ready to bang. I was skeptical: Jackson has always been best as a mid-range jump shooter and doesn't really have the size to defend well down near the basket. Force-feeding him into the back-up center role seemed ill-advised. For the most part, my suspicions have been confirmed, and Wolves fans still must habitually hold their breath, or grit their teeth, when Saunders subs in Jackson and similarly undersized Gary Trent at the same time in close games. But to his credit, Jax has continually been a great communicator on D (even when his body can't fulfill what his mind and his mouth demand), and has unofficially taken on Tom Hammond's old role as the team's enforcer. (As opposed to Trent, who looks a hell of a lot meaner than he plays.) And on Sunday, in the Wolves' most important game thus far this season, he came up big in more ways than one.
Reason number three for the Wolves' win was their outside shooting, specifically their nailing ten of 19 three-pointers, which combined with their marksmanship against the Lakers, makes them 17 for 32 from trey-ville in their past two contests. To produce points as efficiently inside the arc, the team would have to convert 80 percent of their two-pointers. Even before Sunday's shooting spree, the Wolves' ranked sixth in the NBA in three-point accuracy (and near the top since January), yet next-to-last in total three-point attempts. With Szczerbiak, Hudson, Peeler, Gill, and even KG (not to mention Mike Wilks, who bagged two of three treys on Sunday), Minnesota has its best complement of outside shooters in franchise history. It is their best hope of springing a playoff upset against one of the NBA's four elite teams-San Antonio, Dallas, Sacramento, and the Lakers-should that be the matchup.
Right now, of course, it looks like the first-round opponent will be Portland, and the odds are about even-money that the Wolves will have home court advantage. Sunday's win gives them the fourth-seed tie-breaker with the Blazers, who will have an inferior record versus Western Conference teams even if they beat the Wolves in Portland next month and tie their individual season series at 2-2. Portland is still a half-game ahead-with one less win but two fewer losses than the Wolves-but confronts a tougher schedule down the stretch. It's unlikely that Joe Smith and Jackson can fill in for Rasho as admirably as they did on Sunday, but the way this team has countered adversity thus far, it is time to begin suspecting they'll find a way to surmount Portland. Even if Minnesota takes care of business (like winning all four remaining games against also-rans Miami and Memphis, for example) and does secure home court, however, a seven-game series against Portland will be close to a toss-up. It's worth noting that in their two losses to Wolves thus far, the Blazers have been without Wallace and point guard Scottie Pippen (absent on Sunday), respectively, who are their two most valuable players this year. But for now, Wolves' fans can savor a "must-win" win, and a legitimate shot at the team's best finish in history.
It's common for NBA observers to underestimate San Antonio as being Tim Duncan and a bunch of shmoes. That's because team defense is continually overlooked. Against the Wolves, no-name defensive stalwarts Bruce Bowen and Malik Rose did yeoman work guarding Szczerbiak and KG, and, more importantly, were complementary cogs in the league's best overall team D. Furthermore, with vastly underrated coach Greg Popovich at the controls, the Spurs burned the Wolves' most effective defense at the other end of the court. Whenever Minnesota would flash out KG or Rasho to challenge a guard on the perimeter, the double-teamed Spur would deliver a bounce pass to a teammate at the foul line, who would then turn and either hit a cutter going to the hoop, or feed the corner for an open jumper. It was immaculate surgery, a heart removal on the hometown Wolves.
Bogus MVP candidate Kobe Bryant spent most of the second half against Minnesota either spreading his hands and hollering for the ball, or becoming a jump-shooting black hole once he received the rock. As good as Kobe plays in the clutch, that's still toxic chemistry. The Lakers' playoff fortunes will depend only in part on continued magnificence from Kobe and Shaq, and equally on the ability of wizened playoff winners like Robert Horry, Rick Fox, and Brian Shaw to set aside their resentment of Bryant and step up their game.
Should the Lakers ascend in the standings to the point where they play the Wolves in the playoffs, Rasho, as well as Minnesota's three-point shooting, will be the X factors. Like the rest of the NBA, Rasho can't stop Shaq from ringing up points. But at the other end, Rasho's improved footwork and sweet baby hook shot has enabled him to sink 15 of his past 21 attempts against the Big Aristotle over the past two games.
After sinking a wide-open 17-footer during his two minutes of action on Sunday, Loren Woods blew on his "hot" hand coming down the court. We'll all miss these classy displays of self-awareness when Loren is summarily booted from the squad at the end of the season.
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