Timberwolves find sweet relief

Timberwolves find sweet relief

Big Al, you smile so nice

Of all the comments from Timberwolves players and coaches following Wednesday night’s 102-96 victory over the Sixers, which snapped a horrifying eight game losing streak, the best was the most succinct: “Winning is fun,” said Randy Foye. That is true. Is it possible to be glowing with relief? Foye was glowing with relief. The funny thing about all of the post-game banter was the retrospective positive interpretation put on the game, as if the Wolves’ emergence from their three-week nightmare of squandered leads was the result of some overnight change in the team’s performance. (My guess about this, if you care, is that it’s deeply unsettling for professional athletes to confront the fact that the difference, most nights, between winning and losing is almost imperceptibly fine—and, basically, arbitrary. It’s much easier to ascribe the result to something you did or didn’t do.) Wittman, Foye and Craig Smith cited things like confidence, aggression and focus at the ends of quarters as the key to their win. Al Jefferson, while allowing that he played a big role (“I’m just goin’ take over”) offered that getting defensive stops at the end of the game was the key to success. That all seems to make sense, except that the Sixers shot 50% and scored 31 points in the fourth quarter and the Wolves looked just as terrified of losing as always. The only things that saved them in this rather unsightly game were: a) Philly was totally uninspired for almost the entire night b) Al Jefferson hit some insane shots at the end and c) they got lucky.

Riding the Crazy Train

Indeed, this game followed the established pattern pretty closely. The Wolves built a solid third-quarter lead through intermittent stretches of confident play. They went through a strange period of lethargy and inattention at the end of the third quarter and first part of the fourth, in which they slowly but surely allowed their opponent to creep back from a double-digit deficit. And then, as they have in (seriously) almost every game this season, they started to fall apart. The offense became stilted and tentative as they, quite visibly, began to lose faith in themselves, appearing to instantly second-guess every decision. They committed awful turnovers. They passed up open shots. They gave up offensive rebounds and committed bad fouls. And the Sixers’ stars, especially Andre Miller, began, very ominously, to find their games. You could just see the dread in the Wolves’ faces. Wittman was reduced to a series of ashen-faced tics: frantically gesticulating, pacing the floor, whining at this players, pleading with the officials after even the most banal calls. It was honestly kind of scary.

The difference, this time, was that the Wolves figured out how to do what their team is designed to do: get the ball to Al Jefferson. Jefferson wasn’t always immune to the mania afflicting his teammates but he managed to gather himself for three straight scores in the last three minutes. The first was a flailing shot that Big Al kind of pushed over the rim, after missing an open five-footer and gathering the rebound out of a mad scramble. The last two, though, were feathery baseline spins on Philly’s very long-limbed Samuel Dalembert. Amid the Wolves’ emotionally chaotic fourth quarter, Jefferson’s calm, nuanced authority was pretty awesome, and reassuring somehow, to behold. When, with 30 seconds remaining, the Sixers finally chose to double down on him, Big Al quickly found the wide-open Mike Miller outside. Although Miller was 4-7 with 10 rebounds and six assists, he was strangely hesitant to shoot (as he has been much of this year so far), even when momentarily open or guarded by much shorter players. This time, though, he confidently drained a three and sealed the game. Coach Taught Me to Sing, He Couldn’t Teach Me to Love

As the Wolves’ sank deeper into the warm morass of their losing streak, speculation about Randy Wittman’s fitness for his job flared up, complete with fantastical/imagined replacements, from Kevin McHale to Flip Saunders to Jimmie Rodgers (not really). Especially considering the insanely rough road ahead (Boston, Detroit and Phoenix are all on the docket), I wouldn’t expect the win over the Sixers to quiet things down much. I’m not much into such speculation for three reasons. First, I find it weird and unseemly to chatter about when someone is going to get fired. Second, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really think that most people have any idea about how a head coach actually goes about coaxing wins out of his team. Third, the players play the game; they’re human professionals, not chess pieces. That’s not to say that we can’t criticize the decisions coaches make. But, given how statistically slippery it can be to measure how even players contribute to a team’s success, its even harder do so when it comes to coaches. Well, as luck would have it, Ryan McCarthy from Slate, discussing Dave Berri’s new book (he of the regally arrogant Wages of Wins), agrees with me. Coaches don’t have the effect we think they do, he says, and what effect they do have is nearly impossible to measure. Here’s a quote I like:

More interesting than the names on Berri's list is his finding that the influence of even the best coaches was statistically very small and was distinguishable only from the worst-rated coaches, like Floyd. Even title-winning, Hall of Fame coaches like Pat Riley and Larry Brown were shown to have almost no impact on their teams. Players leaving Riley-led teams actually got better (except, it seems, for Antoine Walker).

Man, Antoine can’t catch a break.

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