In the past two games, the Wolves have had to contend with two of the more awesome guards in the league, the Hornets' Chris Paul and Utah's Deron Williams. Both are, in the words of Sebastian Telfair, "attack point guards," that is, playmakers who keep defenses reeling with their relentless ability to create scoring opportunities. Aside from these similarities and their sheer effectiveness, though, the two players are pretty distinct from one another.
As we saw on Tuesday, Williams's size and strength allow him to overpower his opponents, and draw stark, forceful lines to the hoop. Paul's style is much less direct. Compared to the other most elite players in the league--and Paul is certainly among that group of five or so--he is the least obviously physically astonishing--not as big or strong as Lebron and Howard, not as explosive as Wade or Kobe. What he does have is a genius for the game, an ability to marshal his subtle but incredible array of basketball skills--perfect footwork, unfazeable shot-making, electro-magnetic ball-handling--in the service of temporally and spatially visionary court sense and preternatural decision making. Like Steve Nash, Paul has that rare, creative ability to play within traditional structures and expand their shape and scope almost indefinitely. What seems familiar and old-school--the high pick and roll, say--becomes almost abstractly beautiful and new: the out-of-nowhere alley-oop; the impossibly low-angle fadeaway bank shot; the one-handed, cross-court bounce pass. When Paul has the ball, all these things are possible:
And all of them were in evidence against the Wolves on Friday. The Hornets were without forwards Tyson Chandler and David West, their second and third best players and the primary beneficiaries of Paul's basketball largesse. The team was forced to start lovable stiffs Melvin Ely and Sean Marks and give big minutes to Ryan Bowen a terminally straight-laced science librarian (not sure if he's actually credentialed). It's a real testament to CP's genius (and the Wolves' erratic defensive rotations) that the Hornets still managed, particularly in the first half, to play their game; the open midrange jumpers, the easy layups off pick and rolls were all there.
Eventually, though, the Hornets were simply too shorthanded to stay with a Wolves team that is currently playing unconscious offensive basketball. Those band-aid big guys came back to earth after their hot first quarter--the normally even-tempered Paul could be seen growing increasingly frustrated with his mates--and Al Jefferson (10-19 from the field, with 14 rebounds) wore them out with his customarily nasty post play. The Wolves shot the ball ridiculously well in the second half and, thanks in particular to aggressive play by Big Al, Mike Miller and Randy Foye, even managed to get to free-throw line 34 times, to the Hornets' 13. And although Paul, James Posey (who hit seven of eight threes in the second half) and even the gentle Peja Stojakovich did their best to keep pace, the Wolves pulled away in the fourth.
Happiness is a Warm Gun
Confidence is the oft-discussed but little understood unknown at the heart of athletic performance. At it's essence, I think, is the ability to turn off the conscious mind and simply act, allowing the body to move and decide without hesitation. It's hard to know exactly what, besides repeated success, brings it on and sustains it but it seems to be pretty essential for an NBA basketball player. In any case, Randy Foye is currently brimming with it. You can see it in his relaxed, energized movements, his almost giddy eagerness to play, the obvious, simple pleasure he's taking from the game. In the ten games the Wolves have played in January, Foye is shooting 48% from the floor and a ridiculous 49% from three and has been the perfect floor-spacing, outside counterpoint to Big Al (the role that Mike Miller was supposed to play).
Jefferson was the Wolves best offensive player throughout the game but Foye put the game away late in the fourth, when things were tight. It seemed that coach Kevin McHale had erred when he replaced Telfair with Foye at point guard at the 7:35 mark of the fourth (who would guard Paul? who would distribute the ball?) but Foye played tough, physical defense on CP, quickly forcing a turnover that led to an extreme Rodney Carney dunk. Then, on consecutive possessions in the last two minutes, Foye hit a three to make the score 106-101 and, impossibly, blocked the 6'10" Stojakovich's fadeaway jumper (it's really hard to block a shot when someone is both leaning and jumping away from you, particularly when that person is six inches taller). Finally, Foye coolly stepped into another three that put the game out of reach. Randy was having a lot of fun.
Here Comes the Sun
We're now exactly halfway through the season. Watching nearly every game the team has played has given me a new appreciation for just how physically and emotionally grinding an NBA season can be. For that reason, I find it pretty remarkable that the team has managed to recover from the year's disastrous first three months, in which, contrary to their public statements, the Wolves appeared to totally lose faith in their ability to play basketball. Since the end of December, though, the team has won 10 of 14 games and has become immeasurably more fun to watch. Kevin McHale has instilled an exciting, energetic style of play that happens to be well suited to his players' talents. What's more, he's managed to rebuild his team's psyche by fostering positive, resilient relationships with his players. These two things, over and above even in-game strategy, seem to me to be the essential jobs of an NBA coach; and in both of these respects especially, McHale is a huge improvement over his predecessor.
I don't really expect this remarkable run of play, much of which has come at the expense of the worst teams in the league, to continue. The team's offensive success of the past weeks has been built largely on insane outside shooting by Carney and Foye. And it's largely obscured some lingering problems: their size disadvantage up front; defensive play marred by uncertain help defense and shaky rotations, especially by Big Al; the fact that Craig Smith, their starting power forward costs his team more points on defense than he scores on offense. When Foye and Carney cool off, as they inevitably will, this stuff will start catching up with them. Still, for the first time in a while, there's a warm little glimmer of hope. I'll take it.