As Rashad McCants pivoted into a fadeaway from the right block six minutes into the Wolves second season opener, he was interrupted by a whistle. Referee Bill Spooner indicated that he’d shuffled his feet and called Shaddy for traveling. Kevin McHale immediately hopped from his seat and challenged the call only to be rebuffed by Spooner, to which McHale retorted “C’mon. When’s the last time you worked on that move?” It was a genuinely light hearted and comical moment that evoked laughter from the bench, the crowd and press row. It was a genuine indicator that while things may not be necessarily better in the Target Center for the rest of this season, they will be different.
McCants addressed some these changes after the game. “Guys aren’t afraid to make mistakes out there anymore. Before, guys were afraid to make mistakes thinking we’re going to come out the game. You’re always going to be thinking about the last mistake you made or the last play. But McHale just tells us that, ‘You’re gonna turn the ball over, you’re not gonna play a perfect game, you’re gonna miss shots, you’re gonna get the ball stolen from you. But it’s what you do the next time that’s important to us. So when you can play like that, you’re playing with confidence.”
There were mistakes—plenty of them—in the early and late stages of this contest, but in between this team played with a purpose and camaraderie that had been missing since last year. Players moved the ball crisply and selflessly. The frontcourt appeared especially motivated by their new coach, particularly Craig Smith, who exploded out of the blocks for 10 points, 3 boards and 2 steals in the first after getting the starting nod against Paul Milsap. The Wolves undeniably put forth a respectable effort in this contest, but it was tough to measure considering the Jazz looked flat and were missing an integral cog in Carlos Boozer.
Another integral cog in Utah’s vaunted offense looked quite rusty. Though he dropped a $1.10 in dimes, Deron Williams didn’t perform like the stalwart point we’ve come to know and love. He was visibly hesitant to attack the rim in a two on one break and passed out to Okur for three instead. On the ensuing possession, he missed a clear opportunity to hit Okur cutting to the basket after he lost his defender on a pick and roll. He curled to the basket and missed a wide open layup on an inbounds play. He stumbled with the ball on a number of occasions where he’d normally explode to the basket.
Foye smelled blood and took full advantage, moving with a pace and purpose that kept the offense flowing and Utah on their heels. I counted at least five possessions where Foye either effectively sliced his way into the paint and dished or efficiently ran a pick and roll-that Williams invariably needed help on-only to have a teammate blow the easy conversion Foye created for them. So the box score won’t reflect as much, but Foye clearly got the better of his matchup this evening.
Now, two players who clearly had better games than their box scores reflected are Sebastian Telfair and Kevin Love. McHale rationed practically all of Bassy’s minutes in the second quarter (8:59 of 10:01), and the numbers he put up were hardly indicative of his impact on the floor. After a steal early in the quarter, Bassy raced upcourt against Andrei Kirelenko. Everyone in the building knew who had the advantage in this matchup, including the defender and Drei continued his trek towards the hoop where he would wait to punish Bassy for even thinking of having them thoughts thought up. But Telfair showed respect and pulled up at the elbow for an open look at the basket with Kirelenko’s back turned. Thing is, Drei kept going towards the basket because he knew what everyone else in the building did. Bassy is only a threat at the rim and proved as much as he clanked the shot wide right without the slightest hint of follow through.
After an offensive rebound in the following sequence, Bassy whipped the ball crosscourt to an open Kevin Ollie, who pulled up from the opposite elbow and achieved the opposite effect. And therein lies the difference between the aging journeyman and his uncontainable counterpart. But that’s still no explination for why Ollie played the final 15 minutes of the game. In the second quarter Telfair may have only had one assist, but he continually pushed the tempo off of defensive stops and turnovers and got the teammates easy buckets in a quarter which they shot 39%. The Wolves outscored the Jazz 23-14 during that span and Telfair was a +6.
Perhaps it was a matter of size, since Bassy wasn’t big enough to deter Deron Williams, Kyle Korver or C.J. Miles, but Telfair’s quickness and strong decision making still should’ve counteracted that enough for McHale to at least try giving his guard more action. Ollie didn’t exactly justify his crunch time either as he struggled executing pick and rolls and took an ill advised runner late in the game when the team shoud’ve been milking the clock. When Al Jefferson picked up his fourth foul late in the third quarter, the Wolves no longer were a half court team and Bassy should’ve been substituted for a change in pace. Minnesota shot 35% in the fourth and in talking to Telfair postgame, it was clear that he had no explination for his lack of tick and certainly felt he could’ve contributed to a W.
Then there’s Kevin Love. The SLAM diary keeper and TeenPeople model struggled as expected early in his rookie season, but has been making strides of late. Again, though it’s unclear just how much Carlos Boozer’s absence enabled things, Love hit the paint hard in this game and snatched a game high 15 rebounds, with 8 of them coming on the offensive end. (Utah only had 9 total offensive boards.) He’s not particularly strong or athletic, however true to the hackneyed stereotype of the white player, he more than makes up for things with hustle. The other parts of that stereotype, heart and intelligence are still a work in progress.
Late in the second quarter, Bassy zipped a pass to Love off of the pick and roll and Love leaves his feet only to be humbled by Andrei Kirelenko. Block. Love recovers the loose ball and goes up again. Blocked again. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of, AK gets the best of them like that. Shortly thereafter, he found himself facing the basket after hauling in another offensive board and instead of instinctively going up, Love tries to throw the ball off of an opposing player only to end up tossing it out of bounds. It was abundantly clear that the previous rejections had gotten into his head. And for those who would encourage the young fella to go up hard and get fouled, well he did just that in the fourth. And failed miserably. Love played the entire fourth quarter and earned his keep with six vital rebounds and a key assist to Foye for three. But he also contributed to a late Jazz run by missing five consecutive free throws that may have sealed the game. Hopefully it was a lesson learned for the rookie and he’ll get the best of his nerves in the future.
When asked afterwards what he said to his prized draft pick, Kevin McHale responded, “I told him that I’d go into battle with him anytime.”
At this point, I think the McHale’s players would probably say the same of him.