By Myles Brown
A 2-14 team in the midst of a five game losing streak draws 19,000 fans out into below zero weather for a meaningless December matchup. “How” you ask? 70’s night baby!
Oh, and the Suns were in town.
In the five contests following their victory over the upstart Hornets, Minnesota had alternately challenged championship contenders in Dallas and San Antonio before crumbling against the less intimidating foes of Memphis and Los Angeles. Their lethargy streak continued through the first quarter of an Atlanta game that was nearly salvaged were it not for a Joe Johnson buzzer beater, but the disappointment of recent events wouldn’t withhold their best against Phoenix in front of a sellout crowd. The Suns coaching staff made a point of this by highlighting “Don’t turn your back on a wounded animal” on the locker room whiteboard. The two teams inverse records and diametrically opposed rosters belied the truth that Minnesota could defeat the fastest show on hardwood with the same formula as everyone else.
This game was about effort, manifested through defensive intensity and offensive decision making. With the high volume of shots their opponents brought to town, the Wolves-fourth in the NBA with a rebound percentage of .518-needed to control the boards in order to dictate tempo. Al Jefferson’s clocklike block work alongside the bruising bodies of Craig Smith and Chris Richard would be more than enough to combat the Suns offensively explosive-yet defensively frail-frontcourt. But it was absolutely imperative that the lig’s fourth worst team at taking care of the ball (16.4) limited their turnovers, lest they give a high octane offense a head start against an already overmatched D.
The decision for Minnesota’s coaching staff was a tough one:Fill the paint and take away Steve Nash’s passing lanes only to get scorched from outside, or stay at home on the shooters and watch your bigs become props in an impromptu dunk contest? Phoenix’s play in the first quarter offered them little choice. The Wolves scrambled on defense only to watch Nash use them as a revolving door to the lane where he dropped off two quick dimes to start the game. Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire pounded those dunks through the rim and scored seven of the teams first ten baskets almost exclusively on assists from their MVPG before things got blurry. Leandro Barbosa checked in with five minutes remaining and promptly scored four outta the next six trips upcourt. Then he launched a 25 footer that would give him an impressive nine points in four minutes, and his team a four point advantage at the end of the quarter.
To whom it may concern: Re:1st quarter intermission. Breakdancers are not 70’s themed. Don’t do it again.
Such a fluid offensive display would lead one to believe that the Suns were simply too talented for the home team and that it would only be a matter of time before they devoured them. The problem is that Phoenix’s pace may tire opponents, but an almost absolute refusal to defend gives those tired legs layups instead of forcing them into more difficult jump shots. As a result Al Jefferson and Craig Smith exchanged blows with the Suns postmen, scoring nine of the teams eleven field goals in the first, with only two of those shots coming farther than five feet from the rim. Having established their presence on the block, things opened up for Marko Jaric and Sebastian Telfair in the second and Minnesota outscored the visitors by three in the quarter to trim the lead to a 56-55 margin at the half.
Both teams probably walked into the locker room with the impression that they should have had a large lead.
Although they did everything but lay out a red carpet for anyone to waltz their way to the basket, Phoenix did reject a few visitors with seven blocks at the half. But many of those loose balls weren’t recovered and led to ensuing layups that killed any chance to build on their momentum. The Suns were also outrebounded by nine (24-15), including an unacceptable ten offensive boards, which only helped the Wolves compensate for a combined 4-17 (0-4 3P) from Corey Brewer, Ryan Gomes and Rashad McCants. Conversely, Phoenix shot 58% from the field (4-113P) but continued to undermine themselves with six of their seven turnovers in the second quarter. Both teams walked out of the locker room knowing exactly what they needed to fix.
The Sugar Hill Gang were the halftime show. Can’t tell you how they looked live, but I do know that as usual, my cigarette was deeeelicious.
Entering the tunnel as halftime ended, I found myself next to Bassy who had a particularly impressive response to the receiving end of an inadvertent Steve Nash elbow during a loose ball scramble. After laying motionless at mid court for a moment, the elbowee brushed himself off, and proceeded to calmly stoke a sixteen footer, strip the elbower and finish with a layup in the next 30 seconds. Ignoring the decibel lowering body check/block STAT laid on him a minute later, I tell him to keep it up. “Yessir.” And though he struggled in the third, he must’ve passed the message along to his backcourt mate, model enthusiast, Marko Jaric. Phoenix came out aggressively in the third, with eleven points the opening five minutes from STATRIX that would’ve put them in the second round of any recent dunk contest. But when the Suns looked to break away by doubling down on Big Al, Mr.Lima countered with nine points of his own on two treys and an and one during that span, giving Minnesota the lead.
It also should be noted that Al has made a noticeable commitment and improvement in recognizing and attacking the double team. During pregame workouts, he went almost exclusively to the right block (he prefers the left) and practiced facing pressure from both sides for about ten minutes. For someone who already possesses prodigal footwork, practice may truly lead to perfection. Initially, when Grant Hill came with the double to open the second half, he managed to do so on Jefferson’s blind side. But once Al knew that it was coming, he showed the same poise in decision making as before tipoff. He took advantage of scoring opportunities when they appeared and kept the ball moving. The Suns pressure did limit him to four attempts in the quarter, but he still scored six points and had a big assist to Shaddy that started an 8-1 run to end the quarter. He also channeled that extra energy into the defensive end, producing a block and six rebounds that left him with totals of 24 & 15 at the end of three. Phoenix had two blocks and seven rebounds as a team in the same quarter. All that being said, I would like to take the liberty of amending Mr.Bengtson’s comment in this mornings Post Up. Al Jefferson is a m*otherf*ckin’ beast. Word to Perk.
While the Target Center enjoyed an 87-80 lead during the intermission, more than a few folks probably wished the game could end right then. They’d seen the home team squander more than a few leads in the fourth quarter, the most recent being an 80-74 advantage against the Spurs that devolved into a fifteen point loss. So when Nash nailed consecutive three pointers and the Wolves had back to back turnovers, the prospects of another soul crushing defeat loomed large. The Nash driving lay up that followed, bringing the score to 93-89 with 7 minutes left was practically a death knell. But then a funny thing happened on the way to inevitability. Phoenix would only score four more points in the fourth, and those were with less than a minute left when the game was already decided. The Suns finished an inconceivable 4-20 from the floor and were outebounded for a crucial five boards, including four on the offensive end where the Wolves shot a miserable 5-21 themselves.
Granted, Phoenix was at the end of a five game road trip and on the second night of a back to back, but this was still a game there for the taking that they failed to because of their ever present flaws as a unit. The difference between the fourth quarter in this game and the one against San Antonio was a matter of poise. The Spurs put a defensive stranglehold on, worked the ball inside/out and secured rebounds. The Suns went away from Marion and Stoudemire who combined for four FGA, four FTA and three points. Leandro Barabosa had cooled down significantly from a 7-11 3rd, missing all three of his shots and Raja Bell missed both of his shots in the quarter for a consistently cold 2-10 in the game. Most importantly though, was Steve Nash’s 3-7 4th with no assists. He had 15 dimes through three, but once things got tight and he decided to look for his own shot, the Suns became a jump shooting team that can’t rebound-which is always a dangerous combination. In 18:45 Ryan Gomes grabbed seven rebounds, more than all but one Sun (Skinner,9) and the Wolves killed their opponents on the glass by 22 (55-33). Did I mention that this is a last place team?
Steve Nash is an amazing player surrounded by top notch talent, but the Suns will never win a chip playing the way they do. I’ll still watch though.
As the press lingered in the locker room afterwards, Marko had some interesting advice for his departed teammates concerning their upcoming schedule. “It was an amazing team effort, especially defensively. Everybody contributed something to this win. But we need to forget about this victory as soon as possible and try to get on a roll. There’s a couple of games that we definitely can win. I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not scared of us showing up against big teams, but if you want to try and change a season and you want to get to the playoffs we need to win games were supposed to win. If you watch all the big teams they beat every team they’re supposed to. If you lose a couple of games against the best teams here and there, you don’t care. These next couple of games, we need to be those guys.”