Up And Down

Nearly a quarter of the way through the 82-game regular season, the Wolves have a .650 winning percentage (13-7) and are obviously one of the four or five deepest, most talented teams in the league. Yet recent ugly losses to Dallas at home and Chicago on the road make it just as clear that the club still hasn't sorted out their pieces enough to fashion a synergistic identity yet.

The defeat to Dallas hinged on two matchups. Hearing that Latrell Sprewell would be suspended for the game due to his profane comments to a fan in Los Angeles, the Mavs deployed lanky swingman Josh Howard to defend Sam Cassell out on the perimeter. At six feet seven inches, Howard is four inches taller than Cassell, and much quicker too, and he performed yeoman's duty disrupting Sammy's court vision and passing lanes. Putting Howard on Cassell meant the Mavs had to cover Trenton Hassell with wispy point guard Darrell Armstrong, a viable gamble, given that Hassell has tailored his game to emphasize defense and deferentially keep the ball moving on offense. As it was, Hassell tied his season high with eight shot attempts (sinking four), but Spree would have made mincemeat out of Terry.

Yet an even more significant matchup involved coach Flip Saunders's decision to put KG on Dallas's roving point machine, Dirk Nowitzki. With Nowitzki bombing away from outside, KG wasn't able to get back in position for rebounds, and the Wolves got murdered on the boards, corralling just 27 of the Mavs' 51 errant shots. Those 24 offensive rebounds translated into 24 second-chance points for Dallas, 15 more than Minnesota's 9, more than enough for the visitors to register a 10-point win.

Wally Szczerbiak in particular got manhandled underneath--out-rebounded 15-3 by his counterpart, Alan Henderson--and wasn't too happy about it. After the game, he noted that Nowitzki still went off for 34 points, and openly wondered if someone else could have been out there watching Nowitzki fill it up.

"We could have had Kevin down low, where we needed him," Szczerbiak said. "I think maybe we could have made that adjustment."

Good point. Last year, Hassell did a credible job hounding Nowitzki, who never scored more than 31 as Minnesota and Dallas split 4 games. Even if KG was the best matchup versus Nowitzki, who has taken his game up another notch this season, you can't take the league's best rebounder, who has more than twice as many boards as anyone on the team, and stick him outside.

Saunders atoned for that coaching gaffe with a superb game against Sacramento three nights later. Even before the emergence of Eddie Griffin, it was no secret that Saunders's biggest challenge might be fostering enough ball movement and touches on offense to keep the Wolves' wide array of scorers happy--and, not incidentally, maintain the tenacious defense that was the team's calling card last season. The best way to do this is to run the bulk of the club's half-court set plays through their unselfish superstar, Garnett.

But Cassell has accurately surmised that if he loosens up defenses by finding seams and hitting some open jumpers in the first six or seven minutes, KG has more room to operate for much of the rest of the game. Cassell also correctly believes that he is the best late-game, crunch-time shooter on the squad. When Sammy nails a couple of shots early and is given the green light to fire away late, he is an ideal KG-oriented distributor in between.

Against Sacramento, however, the only sensible strategy is to let Garnett run the show from start to finish. Even before an assortment of injuries robbed him of his mobility, the Kings' Chris Webber had fits trying to guard KG. Nor is there anyone else on their roster who has been able to prevent him from racking up monster games on the order of 30 points, 20 rebounds, and 8 to 10 assists. That's why the Wolves now psychologically own the Kings.

Minnesota came up clanking bricks galore last Friday, converting only 5 of their 22 shots in the first quarter. Although the rest of the team found its rhythm in the second quarter, Cassell finished the half with just one point, having missed all five of his field goal attempts. Meanwhile, as often happens, Kings point guards Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson were burning Cassell at the other end, combining for 23 points and 6 assists to fuel Sacramento's 6-point lead at the half.

Sammy's response to such situations has never been docile, and he came out firing in the third quarter, swishing three jumpers in the first three minutes. With less than two minutes to play in the period, he had converted five of eight attempts. But the offense wasn't running through KG, Cassell only had one assist in the quarter, and the Wolves were still down by five.

At this point, Saunders replaced Cassell with Troy Hudson, whose proclivity to pretend he's playing H-O-R-S-E with a ridiculous array of shots has been at least temporarily chastened by the lack of points and playing time it wrought. Hudson immediately fed KG for a layup. Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, Saunders also substituted Hassell for Szczerbiak, making KG the only starter on the floor, surrounded by four players with an acute understanding of how much better they are because Garnett is their teammate. For good measure, Saunders let KG call most of the set plays. Over the next six minutes, the Wolves turned a six-point deficit into a four-point lead.

Starters Spree, Wally, and Mark Madsen remained on the bench for the rest of the game. But for the final four-plus minutes of crunch time, Saunders brought Cassell back in for Hudson. There had been times earlier in the year when the coach's fourth-quarter benchings of his star point guard held a punitive edge, a response to Cassell ignoring his instructions or not bothering to work on defense. Since then, Sammy has found his stride, especially during the Wolves' unbeaten four-game road trip, where he resurrected the defensive effort, court savvy, and clutch shooting that made him a first-time all-star a year ago. Saunders didn't want to lose that momentum by fiddling with Sammy's pride. He understood that above all, Cassell wants to win, and that he couldn't help but notice that the path to victory tonight was straight through Garnett. Besides, if Cassell somehow hadn't gotten the message, there was time to bring Hudson back.

When it was over, KG had 11 points and 5 assists during a 37-point fourth quarter explosion that carried the Wolves to a 113-105 triumph. An advance scout from the Milwaukee Bucks turned to me and said, "You won't find many games in the NBA this year that had a better coaching job than this one."

But if you're only as good as your last game, what are we to make of the egg the Wolves laid in Chicago the following night? More specifically, how much responsibility does Saunders bear for the fact that his veteran team blatantly regarded the lowly Bulls too lightly? Certainly the coach can be second-guessed for riding KG for 44 minutes to ensure the Sacramento victory the night before. Yet while the superstar was obviously taxed, that doesn't explain why his better-rested teammates failed to box out on the boards, rotate with vigor on defense, or mount a serious comeback only after digging themselves a 24-point hole in the third period.

Scoring is up all over the league, largely due to the tighter restrictions on hand-checking opponents on defense. But even with that factored in, the Wolves have too often lapsed into trying to outscore opponents instead of stifling them this season. With the month less than half completed, they have already suffered as many losses--two--as they allowed last December. One could charitably argue that the goals and attitudes are different this time. Having finished with the best record in the rugged Western Conference a year ago, the team feels it has little to prove in the regular season and would rather pace itself and find a way to peak during the playoffs this spring. Or you could blame the schedule, which finds the Wolves in the middle of a stretch where they don't play two consecutive home games for eight weeks.

Or you could simply say that Flip Saunders and his deep and talented team have no legitimate excuse for losing to the Chicago Bulls.

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