by Myles Brown
The monotonous nature of the NBA’s regular season is well documented. Players continually remind the media that they don’t look any further than the current game on the schedule, lest they frivolously surrender a win that could cost them playoff positioning come April. But the fast breaks and flailing limbs of December aren’t always so mindful of these truths. Especially when facing a team that has all but been eliminated from the playoff hunt.
In light of this, it has been practically an impossible task to pinpoint the cause of the Wolves troubling second halves. Quarters in which Minnesota failed to score 20 points were an inevitability under Randy Wittman and the first of Kevin McHale’s tenure reared its ugly head Friday night. Discounting a first quarter in which both teams posted a measly 19, the Timberwolves bounded out of the locker room tied at 41 only to ‘score’ 16 more points in the third on 27 percent from the floor. An average quarter of 25 for the visiting Spurs gave them a nine-point advantage heading into the fourth, and Tony Parker secured the victory with 16 of his 17 in the final stanza.
So are the Wolves putting forth their best effort early only to fall flat late? Or are their opponents simply not taking them seriously until the second half? Given the circumstances, it could possibly be both. The recent coaching change and shift in offensive philosophy has certainly lit a fire under the players and may have made the team slightly difficult to scout in the early stages of this experiment. But once the ball is rolling, it’s also clear that Minnesota’s foes have had little trouble adjusting after intermission while the Wolves have been getting their own way.
It’s tough to blow a team out from tipoff ’til the final buzzer. Even the League’s lowliest franchises are comprised of professional athletes. Sometimes they’re making everything in sight and sometimes a great team just can’t catch a break. There are times when both are simply awful. But when time is short and the air is thin in these pressure-packed arenas, the great teams breathe much easier. Because preparation and experience have not only led them to believe they can win, they expect to. And thus, the proverbial ‘switch’ is flipped. Now in their second year of rebuilding, the Wolves learned they can compete, but they still don’t expect to win.
In that fateful third quarter, several shots–primarily layups–rimmed out and more than few fouls went uncalled. Such things are always frustrating, but conventional wisdom says to push forward. Kevin McHale echoed those sentiments to his squad postgame:
“It’s happened with this team all year long. We missed a bunch of layups and everybody just starts hanging their heads. You can’t get (a shot) much better than layups and we’re missing them, but I know those will go in. The hanging of the head we can’t have and that’s what happened. I think we started feeling sorry for ourselves. You’re thinking ‘Oh I’ve made these shots my whole life and I can’t make one now,’ and you’re running back (on defense). That’s unacceptable. What that led to was a mental breakdown. You can’t allow some misfortune on the offensive end to allow you to give in on the defensive end.”
On the defensive end, the Wolves gave and gave….and gave all night. Initially it was thought to be a matter of strategy, considering that Tony Parker hung 55 around their collective necks in their last meeting, as Minnesota continually left shooters in the corners to help on penetration. But McHale assured the press that wasn’t the case in emphasizing the need for focus and discipline from his team. “No. Not at all. We did it, but that wasn’t the gameplan,” McHale said.
One thing that is almost certain, probably to Randy Wittman’s delight, is that Rashad McCants’ days in the Target Center are numbered. One thing I’ve become accustomed to in this building is booing. There are several variances of displeasure expressed by Wolves fans, from chiding the refs on missed calls to an overt reminder that they’re actually paying to watch this debacle. Generally speaking though, it’s been about as polite as booing can get. It’s not like we’re Philadelphians. But beginning with Shaddy’s first misfire, there was little patience from the crowd until a crescendo was reached after a missed breakaway layup which elicited a chorus of boos that lasted half a minute. This was not displeasure or disappointment, but outright disdain.
After beginning the year with a new found discretion in his shot selection and team centric attitude, Shaddy’s clashes with Wittman resurfaced a careless and petulant demeanor that stifled his undeniable talent. And on a team with few-if any-swingmen besides him, this has come at their detriment. With Corey Brewer gone for the season and Mike Miller hampered by an injured ankle, McCants was given a new coach and the starting spot he’s coveted for so long. He didn’t do much with it. In his last three games, McCants shot a combined 8-36 from the floor. I’d honestly be surprised if he rung in 2009 as a Timberwolf.