Timberwolves take two of three out West

Timberwolves take two of three out West

Imagine this 'do affixed to a large man's chin

After shocking the Suns in Phoenix on Friday, the Wolves capped off their little road trip with a somewhat lackluster, erratic effort in L.A., against the depleted and terrible Clips, and then a stronger, more consistent one against the Jazz. It should probably be noted that the Wolves won the former contest, 94-86, and lost the latter, 112-107. That strange pair of results (and throw in, too, the win in Phoenix which had more than one pundit saying things to the effect of "I have no idea how they won this game, but...") are testament to how very blunt an instrument wins and losses can be in assessing an N.B.A. team's performance. There's a whole lot of space between those ones and zeroes.   

House Party 4

Against the Clippers, the Wolves, as they generally do, faced serious size mismatches inside, in the form of DeAndre Jordan and Brian Skinner.  Luckily for the Wolves, neither of those guys are Chris Kaman or Marcus Camby--although Jordan, who blocked six Wolves shots and is enormous, sometimes looks like he might get there someday. Kaman is a ferocious rebounder and Camby tends to swallow the Wolves whole but both players were sitting out with injuries. Equally fortunate for the Puppies, Baron Davis is also hurt, leaving Mardy Collins, a former Isiah Thomas fave and career 37.5% shooter, to take his place in the backcourt. Not promising.

Compounding the problem, Skinner sports a perpetually half-bleached goatee that looks remarkably like the Kid n' Play flattop (see above) and which, judging from his poor shooting and rotten D on Smith, obviously leaches vital energy from his lifeforce. Suffice to say, any team missing its three best players, including its starting point guard, and whose starting power forward carries around a washed up, lifeforce-draining rapper on his face, is going go be a pretty ragged bunch. These Clips are a far cry from even the sub-mediocre crew that humiliated the Wolves by 23 back in December; the Wolves didn't shoot very well and they played only sporadically good defense, but it was enough to scuffle away with a win. 

The Kick Step

The matchups posed up by the Jazz were more imposing for two reasons. First: rather than simply being outsized in the frontcourt, the Wolves faced serious mismatches at every position on the floor. As is their custom, Smith and Jefferson were at a defensive disadvantage against Paul Millsap and the 7' Mehmet Okur--in the first half, coach Kevin McHale tried to tried to minimize the damage by letting Smith guard Okur and Jefferson Millsap, likely reasoning that Smith's quickness would be an asset against the smooth shooting Turk: it didn't work. That would be bad enough, but Jazz guards Ronnie Brewer and especially Deron Williams were also heads taller than their Wolves counterparts; even when the Wolves contested their outside shots, the Jazz were able to get decent looks at the basket.

Second: Utah's starters are really good. The Jazz have been playing without All-Star forward Carlos Boozer, but with Paul Millsap shooting 56% and averaging 9.5 boards (in only 31.7 minutes/game), they've hardly noticed the absence. Millsap and Craig Smith are considered to be cut from the same cloth. Both are gritty, undersized power forwards who were taken in the second round of the '06 draft and have been considerably more valuable to their teams than players taken far ahead of them. The difference is that Millsap has the long arms, leaping ability and ridiculous strength (not to mention the emotional equanimity) that allow him to rebound and play defense against bigger guys without fouling constantly. In most of these respects our (sometimes) beloved Rhino is a little lacking. Millsap used all of these advantages to abuse the Wolves for 28 points (on 12 of 20) and nine offensive rebounds.

Sebastian Telfair attempts to defend Deron Williams

Just as damaging for the T-Wolves was the matchup of Deron Williams against Sebastian Telfair. Telfair had a fine offensive game--he hit seven of his fourteen shots, dished nine assists, turned the ball over only once and presided over the team's crisp, fluid ball movement--but he was neither tall nor strong enough to stay with Williams. Williams's shot was off (4-14 from the field) but he was able to muscle his way past Telfair whenever he wanted; once he was in the paint he was able both to draw fouls and shred the Wolves' collapsing defense with his accurate, emphatic passes.

Williams had 11 assists but almost as often his kicks would create fissures in the Wolves' D that would be exploited on the team's very next pass. Much of the problem lay in the Wolves' interior defense. Even when he is playing aggressively, Jefferson still does not show the greatest defensive instincts. FSN color commentator Jim Petersen accused Jefferson of "overhelping" (how generous), that is, committing to a ballhandler too far from the basket to be in a position to recover or rebound once that player gives up the ball. True enough, but the worst part was that not only did Jefferson leave vast, unguarded spaces under the basket but he was also too tentative to pose much of a challenge to the primary ballhandler.

The Jazz had countless wide open layups and dunks that were created by Williams' powerful drives into the lane, the Wolves' poor rotations, and the aggressive cutting and passing that ensued. Say what you will about Utah's coach, Jerry Sloan: call him a paternalistic tyrant; blame him for the white breaded machismo of his '90's Stockton and Malone teams; accuse him of bland conservatism; make fun of the funny way he talks, if you want. But don't deny that his teams are always insanely competitive and they always know how to use ball movement to create space. And with Williams, the most gifted, creative player Sloan's ever coached (you heard me), the Jazz are even sometimes, gulp, pretty to watch. I can't believe I just wrote that.

Pour Out Your High Life

One last thing. I know that I recently recommended holding out hope for a Mike Miller resurgence. Well that might be nice for the team this year, but our friend Stop-n-Pop over at Canis Hoopus has a much different, and pretty convincing recommendation:

Mike Miller should be traded as soon as possible. The ideal move would be Miller + Cardinal to Cleveland for Wally.  This would free up a significant amount of cap space for the 2009 off-season; a market in which they would then be the top player in the league.

I suggest you read the whole exhaustive, stat-drenched thing, if you're into that sort of stuff. I realize I just endorsed trading for Wally Sczerbiak, which really spoils my appetite, but the basic logic is pretty sound: no matter how good he might be this year, and no matter how much all of his teammates seem to love him, in the long term, Mike Miller is a luxury the Wolves can't afford.

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