The Three Pointer: Redemption Song

Game # 25, Home Game #13: Indiana 118, Minnesota 131

Season record: 4-21

I usually condense two weekend games into a single trey, but tonight’s victory over Indiana was sufficiently exciting and worthy of individual comment that I’ve decided to file this now and let you folks add comments to this and tomorrow night’s road game against New Orleans. I’ll return for a trey after the Golden State game on Wednesday night. Until then, Happy Holidays, and hoops, to all.

1. The Iron Man

"When you’re having fun on an NBA floor there is nothing better in the world," said Sebastian Telfair after he played all 48 minutes of the second-highest scoring game in Timberwolves history. Amen to that, Bassy, for you are the MVP of the best three quarters this squad has played in over a year, perhaps two. And the shocking transformation Telfair has made from handy punchline to hardy point guard is complete. He’ll have bad games, maybe even a bunch of them, but now it should be regarded as a slump rather than confirmation of his eventual ticket to Europe and the entree to moralistic fables about NY playground kids not making the NBA leap.

For weeks now, Telfair has been accruing evidence against initially heavy odds that he belongs in this league, as a credible backup if not a starter. His 780 minutes are second most on the squad behind Jefferson. He’s averaging 10.3 ppg on 42.5% shooting–hardly great, but not awful, and better to the eye than on paper–and boasts a 2.8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, Tonight he seized the opportunity the Pacers provided him. As coach Randy Wittman said after the game, "We knew [Indiana] would trap outside and if he got by the big men on the high pick and roll he could get what he wanted."

Simple enough, until you realize that the key to Minnesota’s 40-point second quarter was relying on a point guard who didn’t go to college and is only nine months older than Corey Brewer having the sense to recognize the looming trap and then the sinew and quickness to thread through it and finish at the hoop. Coming into the quarter down a whopping 20 points, 20-40, Telfair stuck a 16-footer and drove for a layup in the first 75 seconds. A minute later, when Indiana changed up the trap, he fed to Antoine Walker for a trey. Then a flurry; three driving layups in three minutes time and that huge deficit had been halved and then some with more than six minutes to play in the period. When the quarter was over, the entire Indiana team had scored 15 points and dished out 4 assists, while Telfair registered a dozen (5-6 FG 2-2 FT) and issued 4 assists himself, three of them treys by Walker plus a jumper by Corey Brewer. Put simply, Bassy was responsible for 26 points in the second quarter and the Wolves, after being absolutely flattened in the first quarter, yielding 11 baskets on Indiana’s first 12 shots, miraculously had a 5-point lead at the break.

Three things in particular stand out about Telfair this game. One is his synergy with Corey Brewer, a staple this entire season. Brewer and Bassy are very similar in many respects; both put great pace into the game, fueled by a natural desire to keep going until deterred. Both try to leaven their suspect shooting with smart and quick passing; rarely do you see either one of them simply dribble and survey the floor. And both play all 94 feet on defense, knowing they must rely on speed and guile instead of brawn, looking for poke-check steals, scrambling to stay in front of their man as long and often as possible, and willing to expend the energy rather than concede the layup on a Timberwolves turnover.

The second is Telfair’s toughness. Tonight he went way up against one of the Pacer’s bigs, trying to keep a high rebound afloat, only to bend back a tad too far in his effort and be slightly undercut enough to land on his rear and back–just as Pacer center Jeff Foster was heading up court to trample him with one calf while kicking him in the head with the other. This was the second quarter of a game in which Telfair never sat. According to Wittman after the game, he probably won’t sit tomorrow night versus Chris Paul and the Hornets on the tail end of a back to back. But while his second half numbers indicated some fatigue tonight–he had 11 points, 4 assists and a turnover after going 16-7-0 in the first half–he expended his emergency fuel where it mattered most, continuing to play staunch defense on Jamaal Tinsley, who shot just 3-10 FG and finished with 8 points and 10 assists after coming into the game averaging 14.8 and 8.7, respectively.

Finally, one of Telfair’s four second period layups, perhaps the last one, was a dribble-drive through three defenders culminating in a hand-switch of the ball while he was in mid air, and a left-haned banker. It had echoes of the playground and Jordan about it; the kind of shot you only attempt, let alone make, if you’re clueless and desperate or in a groove and very, very confident. When asked by Myles Brown of slamonline.com after the game if this was his best game of the season, Telfair replied, "absolutely." Brown followed up by inquiring what the difference was between the Telfair of two years ago and the one today, Bassy shrugged, squinted for a couple of beats, and then said simply, "Confidence."

2. The Leader

The flu bug nailed Rashad McCants as well as Marko Jaric, who both stayed away from the arena tonight. Buckner, Foye and Ratliff are hurt. So is Antoine Walker, but not enough not to heed the call and slap some tape on his aching ankle. Yup, less than a day after telling the Strib that he’d tried to come back too soon earlier this season and was going to let the ankle heal this time, ‘Toine suited up, then buried the Pacers for 23 points in 24:58 en route to a game-best plus +21.

Remember that high pick and roll Wittman was describing? Well, if the Pacers chose to defend Telfair’s drives, Walker was waiting out beyond the arc. He sank a half-dozen of them in 10 attempts, forming an inside-outside attack that turned the game for the Wolves after that brutal first quarter.

But it was more than the points, or the solid defense Walker played on ersatz star Jermaine O’Neal. (A not-so-brief detour here to rip O’Neal. Those of us spoiled by years of watching Kevin Garnett never take a night off got a taste of what it looks like when a perennial all-star attitudinally lies down like a dog. Even on two good ankles, Walker has no business negating O’Neal in the low block. JO’s game was epitomized by a play in the fourth quarter where O’Neal was content to watch a long rebound from Al Jefferson’s missed shot go out of bounds. Except that Jefferson hustled over and grabbed it by the sideline, then spun into the lane and dropped a layup over O’Neal. "I think we got him frustrated," Wittman said after the game. That’s charitably diplomatic. O’Neal finished with 8 points on 3-11 shooting and 5 rebounds in 33:59 (he did add 6 assists), plus a minus -18 in a 13-point loss. By contrast, Jefferson had 29 points and 13 rebounds (2 assists) in 33:18. It was a pathetic display by Indiana’s most talented player, who looks to be engaging in a "work slowdown" in an effort to be traded.) No, along with accurate treys and dogged defense, Walker once again demonstrated how a wizened vet with little to gain on a terrible team can exercise the kind of leadership simultaneously designed to brighten the moment and enhance the future.

For one thing, ‘Toine broke out the shimmy, that little end zone dance transferred to the hardwood that once punctuated particularly meaningful ‘Toine treys on a fairly regular basis. When Walker was in his prime, that shimmy felt arrogant, self-aggrandizing and stupidly provocative, a red flag to the other team. Tonight, in a game where the Wolves had just encountered a first quarter beatdown, had seen their star, Al Jefferson repair to the dressing room for stitches after being elbowed in the mouth, and had been called out the previous
game by their coach for not having the gumption to respond to a challenge, ‘Toine’s first official shimmy in a Wolves uniform was perfectly timed to announce that the cavalry was here. It announced that not only weren’t the Wolves going to meekly slink away or choke after a lead had been established, but they were going to revel in their temporal greatness and stand confident in their ability to withstand the blowback. If the Wolves lose that game, as they had lost so many others, ‘Toine looks like a fool. But 59 seconds after the Wolves had come all the way back to finally tie it at 52, Walker nailed a trey to boost the lead to 5, at 57-52, with 45 seconds left in the half, and then took that chance, esentially announcing to his team–"I got your back, let’s have some fun and send a message that we plan on keeping this lead."

Then there is the strong mentorship that Walker is exercising with Gerald Green. Many times during televised road games the camera would catch Walker, waylaid in street clothes with his ankle injury, leaning over talking to Green at GG’s customary spot at the end of the bench. Over the weeks it has become apparent that Walker talks to Green a lot. Tonight it was obvious that Green appreciates the attention and looks to ‘Toine for support and direction.

With both McCants and Jaric felled by flu, Green was the first player off the bench as the first quarter carnage was wrought, with Walker joining him on the court about a minute and a half later. Now I’ve pretty much done nothing but rip GG whenever I’ve raised his name thus far this season, so let me say that whatever influence Walker had on Green tonight, it was still Green who looked to pass instead of shoot for almost his entire first stint on the floor. It was Green who fought through the brief panics about not knowing who to guard and eventually landed his assignment, usually in time enough not to burn the Wolves. And it was Green who slowly but steadily built from square one, gaining the confidence to do more than the most rudimentary team activity on offense and defense, finishing with 12 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in 16 minutes, his best game of the season thus far.

But having Walker around certainly didn’t hurt. ‘Toine was talking a lot to GG, and shepherding him occasionally on defense. After one  timeout, Walker gathered his teammates together as they took the floor and was talking animatedly in a semi-circle with them before play resumed. On the next two defensive possessions, Green was yelling out switches and impending picks, clearly communicating–the first time I’ve seen him do that this year. What’s more, Walker rewarded Green’s initial ball movement by canning a feed from GG for a trey at the end of the first quarter and again within the first three minutes of the second (remarkably enough, at that point I’m not sure Green had taken a single shot).

In the third quarter, Wittman countered Indiana’s zone by bringing Green and Walker in together with 7:10 to play in the period and the Wolves up five. Green immediately went off, nailing a trey and a 20-footer in between two assists to Jefferson, one a beautifully executed pick and roll. Walker and his other teammates kept stoking him and for the first time all year, Green began to play both naturally and intelligently, with the right rotations and shot selection. With a little more than four minutes to play in the quarter, Walker threw a football pass to a streaking Green, who was fouled on the layup attempt. As the crowd cheered, Walker extended his arm to the sky and held up his index finger in celebration. At the other end of the court, Green spotted him and extended his arm and index finger. Then he hit both free throws, bumping the Wolves’ lead to 16.

After the game, a buoyant Telfair said that he and his teammates had been asking for a shimmy out of Walker. "He said if he hit a couple of shots tonight he might do one," Telfair claimed, then later added, "He was a huge factor in this win. And he’s really helping us in the locker room."

3. The Gambler

In the last trey, I highlighted the fact that Coach Randy Wittman had called out his team after the Golden State loss, strongly implying that his players lacked the confidence, bravery and competitive spirit to rebuff an opponent’s challenge and then rebound with a run of their own. Noting that some players were injured, I said a coach can’t use that kind of language too frequently, and questioned the timing.

I still think it was a gamble, that, if the Wolves had gone into the tank, would have further jeopardized Witt’s effectiveness this season. But that was a chance the coach was not only willing to take, but obviously felt like he had to put out there, and tonight he was proven to be right and effective in his tactics. In fact, it is almost as if he wrote the storybook. After the Golden State loss, Witt repeated the contention that when an opponent hits the Wolves, they have to absorb the blow and fight back. Earlier this season, but not earlier this week, he had said when a team hits you in the mouth you have to fight back. Well, tonight the Wolves were not only missing Jaric but their premiere outside threat, McCants. What’s more, their best player, Jefferson, literally got hit in the mouth at a time when the Wolves had already allowed 12 assists and generated only one turnover while allowing the Pacers to shoot 75% (15-20 FG) in the first quarter. And the Wolves did exactly what Wittman had dared them to do, and mocked and belittled them for not doing; they essentially said "enough is enough" and overcame a 20-point deficit with renewed effort and determination and sheer toughness.

After expressing how proud he was of his team, Wittman also took the opportunity to call out the Strib for suggesting, in a front page story today, that the current Wolves team might rank among the worst ever in the NBA in terms of wins and losses at the end of the season. After enduring so much criticism in recent days–from present company included–the coach probably felt justified in doling a little of it back. "These kids, they’ve got feelings too…We are all human beings and that hurt," Wittman said to beat writer Jerry Zgoda, who wrote the piece.

Yet whatever tension might have existed necessarily dissipated in the wake of such a convincing, and unlikely, of course, victory. After a few good natured comments, Wittman concluded his postgame comments with a simple, "Merry Christmas, you guys."

And to all a good night.