By Myles Brown

When Theo Ratliff was substituted for Al Jefferson with 1:30 left in the first quarter of last night’s race to 100, I was pleasantly surprised. A pricey, yet expedient solution to the leak in Minnesota’s frontcourt defense, Ratliff also realigns the rotation, hopefully ending the ineffective clunking of the Craig Smith/Al Jefferson starting combo for good. That isn’t at all to say that Smith is not a worthy player, but to assert that he’s best suited as a sub who can compete with any second team in the lig. The Wolves aren’t a well oiled machine either, but with Randy Foye’s return a few weeks ago providing an equal-albeit more complicated-boost to the backcourt, this team has certainly turned a corner and reached a point where they can be properly evaluated.

When Theo Ratliff clanked a 17 footer thirty seconds after entering the game, I was mildly disappointed. Rust or not, Ratliff’s wheelhouse is a lot closer to the basket than that. But a perceived err in judgment was actually prologue for his next attempt three minutes later. This time, a mere pump fake from the same spot got Tim Duncan off of his feet and cleared a path to the basket for a crowd pleasing dunk. And the foul. That play was a reflection of the team’s performance as of late. Through trial and error, the Wolves are finding their strengths and are no longer satisfied with mediocrity. They want it all.

This was evident in a somber post game locker room. I know, hardly a scene unfamiliar with defeat, but this time of a different variety. These are no longer the head hanging, cliche mumbling 4th quarter drubbings of December, one of which they received from these same Spurs. This was disappointment, not dejection. These were regretful, but proud looks of a team no longer learning how to cope with losing, but how to win.

“It’s not that he’s too big to listen to the rumors…”

An All Star snub was a clear message to Al Jefferson that he play a good one, but he don’t do what he’s supposed to do. And it’s interesting that he’s dismissed as a player simply putting up big numbers on a sh*tty team, when Kevin Garnett was never subjected to the same scrutiny. At least not during All Star consideration. I hate to even bring it up, knowing that it may only induce more insipid comparisons between the two players, when my only intention is to highlight the similarities in the two situations.

Anytime an NBA player is putting up such gaudy numbers this far into a season, sh*tty team or not, he’s being scouted. Extensively. When he continues to put those numbers up, regardless of opposing adjustments, then maybe the concession needs to be made that said player is actually that f*cking good. Sh*tty team or not, there are only two other players in the lig averaging 20 & 10 (D.Howard, Y.Ming)-one other with 21 & 12 (D.Howard)-and they’re both All Stars. Missing the cut by mere fractions (19.6 & 11.5) is another All Star, and a more appropriate measuring stick in Tim Duncan.

So what’s the difference between ‘em? Not as much as one would think given almost a decade of age differential. Al acknowledged early in the season that Tim’s play was a well of inspiration he drew from often and on this night the fluidity of his post moves were almost more than even The Big Fundamental himself could handle. Duncan and Jefferson exhibit the same intuitiveness in footwork and comfort in shooting over either shoulder, but Al is possibly quicker than Tim ever was and has far more angles of attack. Duncan has two or three inches that allow him to finish with dunks more often than Jefferson, but Al is more evasive with his head and shoulder fakes and sudden changes of direction that are complemented with a remarkably soft touch for such a tough player.

Three separate times the student baited the teacher into a three point play, the most impressive of them when he made himself skinny in order to maneuver through a baseline double team of Duncan and Matt Bonner as he drew the foul. This made every perimeter jab step and up fake that much more potent and gave Jefferson room to connect on an ever improving mid range shot. For a player who can shoot over his head, behind his head, scoop shots, floaters and bank shots with either hand, a consistent jumper is the final addition to an absolutely complete scoring arsenal.

However, the definitive gap between the two remains in their passing and defense. Those two or three inches may be why Duncan can anticipate, see and reach over the inevitable double teams that confound Al. Those extra ten years of service in a stable environment are certainly why he always knows exactly where his teammates are and found them for seven assists on the night, when he actually should’ve had three or four more. While Jefferson has improved on his post passing, it will take time before he can develop the second nature that Tim possesses. Defensively, Al has been making strides, he pinned an early Duncan attempt against the boards and had a crucial strip of Manu on a foray to the basket late. But his lack of size may prevent him from ever being Duncan’s equal. Aside from the aforementioned premature jump on Theo Ratliff, Duncan didn’t leave his feet all night, even for any of his four blocks. He learns from his mistakes immediately and when that’s coupled with his length and patience, it makes for a fearsome defensive presence.

Three’s company?

As bright as the future is for Al Jefferson, I’m equally enamored with the play and development of Sebastian Telfair. Traded for the second time in his brief career and essentially considered a throwaway in the K.G. trade, Bassy certainly had the most to overcome upon his arrival in the Twin Cities. And at the risk of sounding callous, Randy Foye’s injury was the best thing that could’ve happened for Telfair. He was in a non-competitive situation where he could learn from his mistakes without looking over his shoulder for the hook. As a result, he is a more confident and decisive player with a better feel for pacing and ball movement, reflected by a more than 3 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. He’s as quick and sure handed with a ball as Jenna Jameson and uses his feet surprisingly well on defense. I’ve said time and again, that if Al is a mirror image of Tim, then Bassy is a jump shot away from being Tony Parker. So I was more than pleased when he went right at an aging Damon Stoudemire for consecutive pull up 16 footers in the opening quarter and finished the half 6-10 with 3 dimes and no turnovers. He wasn’t showing the self consciousness in his shot that normally freezes him and the offense at times. He was fearless and efficient in his selection and his team almost defeated the champs because of it.

The problem is that Randy’s back. As everyone else, I eagerly anticipated his return, but not to the point guard spot. Foye is a deceptive playmaker in that he creates for others after his own scoring opportunity has dried up. He doesn’t have Telfair’s instincts for when and where to move the ball for the teams best scoring opportunity. There were instances where he didn’t wait for the trailing Al Jefferson to secure post position and opted to go one on two with two seven footers. He didn’t recognize when to stop trying to force the action to a covered area and reverse the ball to an open teammate. But he is a far better shooter than Bassy and serves as a complementary piece to Jefferson for a respectable inside/out game, as shown when the pair connected for two of Randy’s three treys. That opened up driving lanes and he did use them to create, even hooking up Bassy for an easy three pointer. This continued through the fourth and Foye contributed three of the teams five assists in the quarter. It was easily the best performance of his comeback and he hadn’t even played his tenth game.

But then there were the last two possessions. Leading 99-98 with the ball and an unstoppable Al Jefferson on the floor, Randy runs the pick and roll to perfection with Al as both Spur defenders show and leave an unimpeded Jefferson rolling straight towards the basket for what would have been a game clinching basket. If Randy would have passed the ball. Instead, he chose once again to go one on two with two seven footers and test his luck with a driving right handed hook shot. After the Spurs secured the board and subsequently seized the lead, the Wolves put the ball in Foye’s hands for a chance at redemption. Driving and pivoting into the paint, he leaves his feet for another shot, only to be forced by an attentive Manu Ginobli to fling a desperate pass to Bassy before he landed. Bassy shoots….and misses. Game over.

When looking at their respective talents, in time the Wolves may be able to duplicate the Spurs triumvirate. But only if Randy Foye is willing to be the Ginobli of the three. Like Manu, Foye does like to bomb from outside and drive to the basket for explosive finishes. But at this point, Randy’s timing and conditioning aren’t where they will be and he’s certainly not the ball handler that Manu is, so the rest of this season might be best spent getting acclimated to his teammates and their idiosyncrasies in order to shore up his playmaking abilities. Foye wouldn’t know whether he’d start or come off the bench, but he’d certainly finish. It’s a role for a multi-faceted player who can play within himself and provide whatever the team needs, be it scoring, distribution, or both. But Manu Ginobli would tell him it’s not a bad gig.