The Wolves' loss to the Lakers in Game Four of the playoffs on Sunday doesn't require any complicated analysis. Shaq steamrolled Minnesota's centers. End of story.
For those interested in measuring the dimensions of Shaq's pancaking, the statistical matchup went like this: In 46 minutes of play, The Big Aristotle scored 34 points, grabbed 23 rebounds (ten on the offensive glass), dished out six assists, and committed three fouls. The Wolves' triumvirate of Rasho Nesterovic, Marc Jackson, and Joe Smith collectively played 48 minutes, scored four points, hauled in eight rebounds (two on offense), didn't register a single assist, and were whistled for 14 fouls. Shaq's dominance also propelled the Lakers' to a whopping 29-to-2 edge in second-chance points, in a game that ended 102-97.
Smith is too frail and Jackson too short to be anything more than speed bumps or annoying tomahawk-choppers when the Lakers' straits are of sufficient urgency for Shaq to set his mind on rolling toward the hoop. But what's up with Rasho? Granted, he's never been particularly adept at defending Shaq (joining a group that includes everyone else in the NBA), but during the regular season he posed enough of an offensive threat to make Shaq work at the other end of the court. In their third meeting of the season on March 7, he deployed his baby hook, fadeaway J, and lane-running, bank-in lay-ups to convert nine of ten shots.
Of course, that was way back when he had two healthy ankles and, for a change, a head full of confidence. To the outside world, Rasho is a docile soul, his sad eyes filled with shyness and self-effacement. I think the first eight words of the English language that he learned were, "Not much. Just help the team get better." But in the torture chamber between his ears, Rasho is a task-mastering son of a bitch, berating himself with the entire Slovenian dictionary for imperfections real and imagined.
Right before he sprained his ankle late in the third quarter of the final regular season matchup with L.A., his team was ahead, the interior passing game he had established with Kevin Garnett was a thing of beauty, and an occasional smile could be seen on his lips. Upon his return nearly two weeks later, he had slipped back into a haunted, tentative, inconsistent mode of play. No doubt he is mortified by his performance in the playoffs thus far, which put him on the sidelines, watching the undersized Jackson spur the Wolves to their epic overtime win in Game Three. There's no longer enough room in his head to contain the internal task-master, who has broken out and bitched his way into two highly uncharacteristic technical fouls in the first four games of the series. Compounding the pressure, Rasho will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year.
Whatever the reason, Shaq owns Rasho right now. And the Wolves' cannot and will not beat the Lakers if they lose the center match-up by 30 points, 15 rebounds, and sis assists the way they did on Sunday.
Rasho's not the only convenient scapegoat for fans intent on seeing their squad upset the Lakers. The other day, the espn.com website quoted Tracy McGrady as saying that he, and not KG, should be the league's MVP because Garnett had "another all star in Wally Szczerbiak" playing beside him. Well, I hate to puncture T-Mac's bloated ego, but Wally's all-star status was bogus last year and he hasn't come close to reaching the same level this season, especially in the playoffs. His inability to get in sync with the Wolves' offense in Game One could be excused by the horrible decision to waste energy fruitlessly chasing Kobe Bryant around. But now that Anthony Peeler is pulling yeoman Kobe duty, Szczerbiak still looks lost. He was the only Timberwolf who lost his composure during Minnesota's gutsy overtime period in Game three, varying his ineptitude between irritated fouls and heedless turnovers. And in Game Four, his shot selection and ball handling remained adventurously shoddy.
Yeah, Szczerbiak has had to adjust to Troy Hudson's emergence as the second scoring option behind KG thus far in the series. And on the basis of his past performance, it is probably too much to ask that he double down on Shaq in the low post with efficient alacrity. But the guy is on the court because he can fearlessly put the ball in the hoop when necessary. Ideally, he compensates for his questionable shot selection, proclivity for turnovers, and mediocre defense with deadeye marksmanship, especially from beyond the three-point arc, where he has been one of the NBA's most accurate shooters for two years in a row.
In particular the Wolves' needed Wally's scoring touch midway through the fourth quarter in Game Four, when Hudson was cold coming off the bench and Garnett was busy doing everything else to help his team compete. Szczebiak's nemesis, Rick Fox, had gone to the sidelines with an injury in the first quarter. The Lakers' were devoting defensive attention to Hudson and Garnett. So Wally had open looks for much of the second half. But after hitting a trey earlier in the fourth quarter, he faded down the stretch, missing a crucial, wide-open three-pointer at the top of the arc, and passing up another clear jumper in favor of a more difficult, albeit successful, long-range attempt by KG.
In the playoffs, Szczerbiak's overall 47.8 shooting percentage is nearly identical to his 48.1 percent accuracy during the regular season. But he is converting just 15.4 percent from three-point territory, compared to his 42 percent mark from long range during the regular season. Worse than that, after averaging 2.6 assists and 1.67 turnovers per game in the regular season, Wally has passed for just 1.5 assists while committing 3.25 turnovers in the playoffs.
Szczerbiak's package of virtues of vices--he can usually hit the open jumper and fill the lane well in transition, but has difficulty creating his own shotmakes him an ideal third scoring option on a championship contender. Hudson's hot hand has at least for now made that choice scenario a reality. More than likely, Fox will continue to be sidelined for Game Five, and L.A. will concentrate its defense on stopping Hudson and Garnett. The situation is ripe for a productive game from Wally. The Wolves' playoff hopes may hinge on how well he seizes the moment tomorrow night.
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