Home Game #9: Los Angeles Lakers 116, Minnesota 95
1. Losing Reason To Care
Games like tonight’s undressing by the Lakers and last Saturday’s (blissfully blacked-out from television) pratfall on the road in Memphis are the sort of energy-suckers Wolves’ fans and the team’s PR department feared in the wake of the Garnett trade: That the ballclub would be so bad, and so lacking in interesting storylines and likeable characters while being so bad, that it would inspire apathy instead of anger.
Succinctly put, the game was a joke. Yes, the Wolves are minus not only Randy Foye and Theo Ratliff (both of which have something strange going on in their knees that modern medicine has yet to adequately diagnose), but turned-ankle Marko Jaric and now back-surgery Coach Randy Wittman. But the Lakers themselves were sans the leviathan shot-swatter Andrew Bynum, energizer power forward Ronnie Turiaf, and Bynum’s backup, Kwame Brown. Before the game, assistant coach Jerry Sichting (the man filling in for Wittman) told his charges of LA’s absences. "I told them I thought it was a level playing field as far as injuries," Sichting noted in his postgame press conference.
But the players didn’t seem to agree. They rolled up and died, almost from the opening tap. Coming off the embarrassment in Memphis did the opposite of firing them up; it turned them acquiescent to defeat. In the most literal sense, the Wolves had no intention of winning this game. They did not expect to win, and indeed, barely seemed to hope for it.
And the effort was horseshit. Defensive rotations were slow-footed and dim-witted, creating obvious lanes for passing and driving to the hoop that cowardly instincts and indifferent exertion kept open. The Lakers shot 50% or better from the field in all four quarters, finishing at 54.3% FG (45.5% from beyond the arc), with an assist/turnover ratio of 28/11. The Wolves’ offense was marginally better than their defense, in part because you don’t have to try so hard to achieve minimal success on offense. But they finished with zero quarters at 50% or better and 44.4% FG overall (22.7%–a miserable 5-22, from beyond the arc), with 11 assists and 18 turnovers. There wasn’t any suspense. Anyone could see beyond the first period concluded that the Wolves would get waxed-it was up to L.A. to name the margin. Because they chose to play Kobe Bryant only 28:56 and eased into neutral gears in the second half, they only triumphed by 21.
2. Roll Call
Let’s hope Al Jefferson’s knee is still tender, because the rest of his game certainly seems to be during the past two outings. Jefferson followed up season lows in points and minutes on Saturday with second-worsts in points and minutes tonight. Bynum’s size had clearly bothered "Big Al" in the first Lakers game, but with Bynum sidelined, Sichting said he "wanted to see him go inside more often" and told him that, "but he didn’t." Craig Smith did, however, which is why the Rhino had just one less FGM in 8 less FGA and got to the line 6 times in 29:28 versus 5 times for the frequently double-teamed Jefferson in 30:56. Jefferson also didn’t box out very well, and rotated horribly on defense, but that last criticism could be affixed to any Timberwolf tonight.
Rashad McCants continues to ratchet up his unlikeability factor, jacking up more shots-per-minute than anyone on the team tonight, which seems selfish and disruptive when they don’t come close to going in or are offered up without much energy spent driving to the hoop. For the second straight game, Shaddy put himself in foul trouble (his third occurred halfway through the second period when he swarmed all over Kobe Bryant after Kobe picked up his dribble-what are the odds of him getting the call on the inevitable contact?) and padded his stats when his team was hopelessly behind in the 4th quarter. "Rashad needs to get consistent," Sichting declared, ignoring the point that he has been consistently underperforming lately. "He’s not putting good games back-to-back." I instinctively like McCants, but I’m beginning to think it is against my better judgment. Tonight in the second quarter, Kobe actually got called for traveling, a situation so shocking to him he picked up a technical. The player who shot the technical free throw was McCants, who at the time was 73.3% from the line. Why not Ryan Gomes, who entered the game among the league leaders in free throws at 87.9%? These are weird pecking order things that shouldn’t occur on a ballclub this putrid.
What dodo once called Ryan Gomes smart and the second-best player on the team? Gomes had zero assists and five turnovers tonight, and three of his four buckets were a variety of a give and go with Jefferson along the baseline-the lone play that seemed to click for the Wolves. He also guarded the easiest of the three swingmen-Luke Walton instead of Kobe or Lamar Odom-and yet seemed plagued by the same torpor as his necessarily harder-working teammates.
During a Wolves’ timeout in the second quarter, Gerald Green spent the entire time well removed from the circular huddle, where, you know, he might glean some information that would improve on his reputation for not knowing where to go in the offensive and defensive sets. Instead Green was conversing with the injured Ratliff near the end of the bench. Twelve seconds after play resumed, Gomes picked up his third foul and with McCants also saddled with three, Sichting sent Green into the game. Thirty eight seconds after that, Green receives a pass just over center court from McCants for his first touch. Kobe and Lakers’ rookie Jarvis Crittenton immediately sneak up behind Green and knock the ball from his grasp, resulting in a ruthlessly gorgeous, but rather embarrassing to Green, breakaway slam by Kobe. Two or three years from now, Gerald Green will be back in his old neighborhood, alternately bragging about his NBA career and complaining how he got screwed because nobody gave him a chance to play.
3. Silver Linings
They are precious few, as you suspect. As the players are about to take the court, Antoine Walker stands in front of the scorer’s table with his arms wide and outstretched to hug McCants before Shaddy plays. It is one of those player rituals that connote affinity and affection on a team and McCants has always been a big proponent of it; working out bows and skits with KG last year, and a series of fists and rolling-dice movements with Craig Smith this season. But Walker’s thing with Shaddy is without the hubbub and flashing lights of player introductions, out in the open at a time when the audience is focusing, and deferential. The vet with the ring is giving it up for the microfracture guy playing for a contract extension. And after that little ceremony, Walker moves down the line, exchanging fist bumps and hand slaps with every member on the bench, a big smile on his face. He did it tonight, a game that Sichting said he personally thanked ‘Toine for playing because he knows "Antoine has a very very sore ankle." As opposed to Theo’s knee, which "doesn’t feel right," Ratliff says. But this point in the trey is "Silver Linings," so we’ll wait until Theo finds a doctor, somewhere, anywhere, who can tell him what wrong before passing judgment on his $11 million disappearing act.
Sebastian Telfair has exploited injuries to Foye and Jaric to compile a pretty solid sample size of what he can do for this ballclub at the point guard position. He’s averaging nearly 15 points and five assists the past five games, converting more than half his shots and compiling a 23/9 assist to turnover ratio. At the least he deserves some rotations with the second unit when Foye returns.
Craig Smith missing KG most on defense, but when it comes to putting the ball in the hole, he is deceptively effective. Tonight’s performance, 13 points on six official shots (4-6 FG, 5-6 FT), was typically efficient.