Game #34, Home Game #17: Miami 91, Minnesota 101
Season record: 5-29
1. The Importance of Glue
Other players scored more points, grabbed more rebounds, doled out more assists, and generally exerted a higher-profile on tonight’s rare Wolves victory than the two glue guys I consider to be most crucial to the win, Ryan Gomes and Marko Jaric.
For that matter, Gomes himself has had games, especially recently, where he’s shown off more obviously than he did tonight. But this Miami game is what I had envisioned when I penciled in Gomes as the team’s second-best player at the beginning of the season. It wasn’t just that his versatility enabled coach Randy Wittman to get away with a daring lineup switch. He was also the calming agent on a squad dripping with flopsweat at crunchtime, the one who took the hands away from the Wolves throat when it looked as if the team was going to choke away what was once a 19-point lead to the second-worst team in the league.
We’ve all seen it before from this ballclub: the rote perimeter passes and faux-aggressive dribbling accomplishing nothing but wasting time. Then, tick-tick-tick, the spin-dribble in traffic, or the forced lean-in trying to draw the foul, or the shot taken almost deliberately off balance for no ostensible reason, or–at long last–the now-gallant chucking up of a prayer because the 24-second clock is expiring. These are the crunchtime moves of performers angling to hedge their choke against extenuating circumstances. It’s a mentally frozen team psychologically preoccupied with not looking stupid or of being the goat, which of course dramatically increases its chances of looking stupid and being the goat. That’s the way the Wolves played most of their half-court sets in the 4th quarter tonight. But Gomes was a prominent exception.
When I mentioned Gomes’s ability to remain unruffled during an otherwise rocky crunchtime, coach Randy Wittman didn’t entirely agree, inferring that Gomes, too, turned down a couple of easy shots he should have taken–and given that Wittman was understandably both ebullient and relieved by the win, and in a mood to slather credit on his troops, he might be right. But the coach then identified two of the three plays that had me pinning gold stars on #8, and correctly called them "the big shots" of the game.
First the one Wittman didn’t cite: With nine minutes to play and the Wolves lead dropped to 8, Gomes faked a jumper, dribbled to his left and nailed a 17-footer. For most of the season Gomes has been a catch and shoot guy, and for him to vary the script and still go up easily and in rhythm was body language telling everyone he wasn’t feeling any pressure. Fifteen seconds later, Jaric committed a foul and the Wolves were in the penalty with 8:51 to play, against a player, Dwyane Wade, who had 16 fourth quarter FTs against them in Miami. The heat, if not the Heat, was on.
But with 8:02 remaining and the Wolves up 9, Jaric found Gomes in the corner for a trey and again he didn’t hesitate, went up smoothly, and buried it. At a time when the Wolves’ offense was clearly floundering, this was a big basket; and a signal they wouldn’t fade under the expected barrage of free throws Miami was going to be shooting. Then, with 2:36 to play, Miami cut the lead to 6–closer than they’d been since midway through the first period. The squads traded misses until, with about 90 seconds to go, Gomes got the ball and drove down the left lane, suddenly dumping it off to Jefferson for a lay-up that put the Wolves up by more than two possessions with barely over a minute to play. Huge basket.
The preceding paragraphs are also an abject lesson in why you don’t go chapter and verse about glue guys. Describing subtle contributions, or steady play in relatively dramatic moments–and watching the Wolves tighten up as their lead eroded on their most winnable game of the month was, unfortunately, dramatic–still can’t do them justice.
Anyway, Gomes was also crucial to Wittman’s decision to shake up his lineup by replacing Craig Smith with Rashad McCants. That put Gomes at the power forward slot, opposite not Udonis Haslem, who guarded Al Jefferson much of the time, but Heat center Mark Blount. Now all Wolves fans know that Blount is a shrinking violet in the paint. But it’s still notable that the 6-7 Gomes was trusted with the assignment of containing Blount, which he did mostly by fronting him, but occasionally playing behind him on the low block. Gomes also had to play all the rotations on zones from the power forward slot. The bottom line is that Gomes outrebounded Blount 6-4 (surprise, surprise, eh?) and also grabbed three steals and dished for 3 assists against just one turnover while getting 13 points–stats better than Blount’s across the board.
I’ll be more succinct about Marko’s glue heroics. First and foremost, he was the primary defender on Wade, forcing him to make a bevy of acrobatic layups in order to get his 25 points. More importantly, he stayed in front of Wade well enough to prompt six turnovers from the Miami superstar, including four in the fourth quarter, and to draw a charging call on Wade for his 5th foul, further limiting Wade’s aggression (kudos to gutsy ref Dan Crawford–the best in the game–for making the right call there). He also hit 6-9 FGs (5-6 from inside the three point line), and dished as well as scored off of penetration, finishing with an 8/2 assist-to-turnover ratio. It was a game tailor-made for the "good Marko"–chaotic, sloppy, and prone to spurts of opportunism.
Having argued in my last trey for less Jefferson-Smith on the front line and more burn for McCants, I was pleasantly surprised by the rejiggered lineup. In retrospect, I don’t think it was the difference in the outcome of this game–during his brief stint, Smith murdered Blount in the low block by flashing down into the paint and using Blount’s well known distaste for flesh and flesh contact, getting 7 points and 6 rebounds (and, alas, 5 fouls, an ongoing Rhino vexation) in just 13:43. But having McCants around for the opening tap is really the only way right now to prevent Wolves opponents from packing the paint against Jefferson, especially when Shaddy erupts, as he did tonight, for 18 first half points on just ten shots (8-10 FG, 1-1 3ptFG, 2-2 FT). What Wittman appropriately demands, and what McCants has done recently, is to vary his attack, from full-court dashes in transition to explosive penetration in the half court to quick midrange jumpers and, finally, three-pointers.
When McCants is on his game, there is more room and less pressure for Jefferson to score. Hell, there is more space for everyone to score–that’s why an inside-outside scoring tandem is fundamental to even mediocre offenses. That the Wolves have been trying to get by exclusively pounding the ball into Jefferson–or relying on the likes of Telfair, Jaric, Brewer, etc. to score from outside–is a rather large reason why they’ve been so dreadful on offense the past month. Toss Randy Foye into the mix, and you’ve got three players capable of getting bushels of points in the paint–with about two dozen cavaets–involving health, maturity, pecking orders, etc.– that we won’t go into right now.
Besides, even this win comes with a sobering reality check. After combining for 30 points on 70% shooting (14-20 FG) en route to a 59-point first half, the Jeff-Shaddy combo played like jokers and exerted no leadership or command against an opponent begging to be put out of its misery in the second half. The most jaw-dropping stat in last night’s box score is zero turnovers for Jefferson. That’s only because all the times he muffed well-timed and -delivered entry passes resulted in him putting up a more difficult shot instead of an easy make, or being forced to pass it back out. His only basket in seven third quarter attempts was a tip-in 15 seconds after intermission, and in the fourth quarter one of his two baskets was the crunchtime dish from Gomes,
who did all the heavy lifting. At 3-10 FG, Big Al came up small in quarters three and four.
McCants was as bad in the fourth period as Jefferson was in the third, going 2-10 FG after nailing 8-10 in the first half and 2-4 in the third quarter. Wittman inferred that some of that might have been because Shaddy was willing to step up and let it fly while his teammates were fearfully spurning better shots. But even granting the point, McCants seems better able to bang home those treys or finish those serpentine journeys to the hoop when he team is up or down by 20 points, or in the first half, rather than when the score is close and the game is late.
Nevertheless, balance out the bad and the good and you still have a player who went off for 27 points–pretty much his average the past two games as well–on 12-24 FG. Shaddy wrested a missed Jefferson free throw from Udonis Haslem (no mean feat) and laid the ball in. He snuck in for another offensive rebound and putback midway through the second quarter. He hit a respectable two out of five treys but also muscled his way through traffic for at least two left-handed layups. Oh and there were also the 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Overall a fabulous game, but, McCants being McCants there was of course some bad with the good, just as his "bad" games frequently contain silver linings.
3. Hit and Run Observations
Watching Ricky Davis pile up the turnovers–five, in 25:24–take breaks on defense, commit a dumb foul or two, and wring about three percent of the potential from his talent produced some Pretty Ricky flashbacks that actually put McCants, who schooled him most of the game, in a much more favorable light. Then there was Blount and his pathetic defense, aversion to contact, 4 boards in 35:37, and dutiful going through the motions. About the only consolation for Heat fans is that Antoine Walker had one of his worst games of the season. That said, ‘Toine’s been a stand-up teammate under trying circumstances, Minnesota bagged a first-round pick, and the Wolves don’t have the toxic twins poisoning their locker room.
Minnesota would have won by 25 or 30 tonight if Sebastian Telfair could shoot. Let the record show that Bassy finished 3-10 FG and turned down about three times as many wide open looks throughout the course of the game. Nine assists versus three turnovers is nice, but the more frequently defenses can disdain his jumper, the less and less passing alleys and angles he’ll have against dropping-off defenders.
Randy Wittman pointedly mentioned a very rigorous practice the team had yesterday in the context of tonight’s uptempo win. If the Wolves beat one of their next eight opponents–Phoenix and Golden State twice apiece, plus Houston, Denver, Boston and San Antonio–maybe I’ll buy that taskmaster approach. Meanwhile, it was just good to be able to see him smile at that postgame podium for a change. He opened his remarks by saying, "Well, we got off the schneid finally." Yes, yes you did coach. Here’s hoping another schneid isn’t headed your way.