Game #18, Home Game #10: Memphis 97, Minnesota 95
Season Record: 2-16
1. Effective Smallball
2. Half-hearted Second-guessing
3. Simpatico pairings
1. Effective Smallball
Fresh off their first victory in more than a month, the Minnesota Timberwolves came home to meet a Memphis Grizzlies team ranked at the top of the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage and points in the paint, most directly attributable to Grizzly power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol being 4th and 14th, respectively, in offensive rebounds per game.
It was perhaps an odd circumstance to opt for smallball, but the Wolves had just vanquished Denver with a new-look frontcourt that had bumped Ryan Gomes from 3 to 4 and inserted Damien Wilkins at the small forward while benching their callow seven-footers Ryan Hollins (most recently) and Oly Pecherov. Wilkins and Gomes had combined for 42 points (18-29 FG), 15 rebounds and 8 assists, propelling Minnesota to a 51,2% shooting night and a 46-43 edge in rebounds. By contrast, Denver's forwards were 17-37 FG and had 48 points, 19 rebounds and 5 assists. Given that one of them is Melo Anthony, a statistical push was good news indeed for the Wolves.
Anyone who remembers my wailing refrains against smallball lineups in previous Wolves' years past knows that I believe size matters, and that Gomes was generally out of place at the power forward slot. But this season I have seen the tragicomedy of Hollins and Pecherov "defending" people in the paint. Whenever I want to appear smart on press row, I tell one of my media colleagues to watch Hollins, who regards cutters entering his vicinity with the sort of startled amazement newborn infants have when their own appendages enter their vision for the first times. In addition, there have been at least six or seven times thus far this season when Hollins has rotated off his man a split-second after the man is moving toward the hoop, a prelude for him receiving the pass for a layup or dunk. Meanwhile, Pecherov simply gets overwhelmed--nothing a decade of squats and some of Mark McGwire's milkshakes can't cure. No, compared to Hollins and Pecherov--both of whom, it should be noted, can get up for the occasional block and also have reasonably deadly jumpers (Hollins' form in particular is exquisite on the jumper)--a frontcourt of Jefferson in the pivot flanked by Gomes and Wilkins compensates in sinew and smarts for nearly a foot's worth of extra vertical inches.
Besides, despite the Grizzlies gaudy rebound and putback stats, the matchups were a reasonable gamble for coach Kurt Rambis to make. Jefferson versus Marc Gasol matched a couple of guys who spent the summer shedding pounds and pounds. Jefferson said he'd dropped 30; Gasol, the erstwhile water buffalo, looked to have seen him that 30 and raised (lowered?) him another 20. You know a guy has really slimmed down when he looks like an entirely different person above the shoulders. That's Gasol, a veritable mister narrowface now. Not coincidentally, he's playing much better his sophomore season, going 15.4/10.0 in points/rebounds despite Randolph doing what Randolph does best--sucking up those stats for himself. But Jefferson toyed with Gasol most every meeting last season, and 80% knee or not, probably could hold his own, at least, for this game. The other two matchups were less obviously copasetic--Gomes had to press his braincells over brawn battle versus Randolph with a cool fervor, and Wilkins had to get out the rubber mallets and beat the crap out of Rudy Gay, who doesn't outweigh Wilkins by five pounds, no matter what the program or media guide says. Just as significantly, the Wolves' guards had to pack the paint, preventing penetration and mucking up horizontal as well as vertical routes and lanes.
For awhile it was a beautiful thing. Jefferson opened the proceedings with one of his classic jab step then quick spin forays for a dunk around Gasol, then Gomes stepped out on Randolph for a 19-footer and blew past him for an and-1 three-pointer and it was 7-0 Wolves with 70 seconds elapsed. It was 19-8 two seconds past the halfway mark of the first period, a cue for Rambis to deploy ten players--everyone in uniform but Oly and Brian Cardinal--during the quarter that ended 28-22 Wolves. The starting frontcourt had 23 of those 28 points and the assist to turnover ratio was 7 to zero. They pinched the lead up a tad, to 55-47, at the halftime break, and the stat sheet shrieked of smallball success. Gasol had a measly two points, both of them free throws, and while Randolph had a dozen and Gay 6, the Grizz had grabbed a mere 3 offensive rebounds, which factored with the Wolves' 16 defensive boards, amounted to a 15.8% offensive rebounding percentage, less than half its 32.2% average. The price was that guards O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley were getting too many open looks, with both players in double figures at the half, which for Conley was already above his 8.1 ppg average.
As most of you probably already know, however, the third quarter was doom. What the Wolves did to Memphis at the start was ju jitsued, as Conley sandwiched a pair of long jumpers (the first one a trey) around Gasol's first layup of the game, all weakly answered by Corey Brewer making one of two at the line. When Gay nailed a 15-footer and Rambis called timeout, the score was suddenly tied with 10:04 left to play in the third and Conley was already just a single point below his season high. The Wolves' regrouped, made an 8-0 run for a 64-56 margin with 7:54 to go in the third. The next stretch is where Rambis believes the game was lost. Specifically, he said in his postgame comments that turnovers due to bad decisions led to easy baskets that all the paint-packing in the world was helpless to prevent. After committing six turnovers in the first 28:58 of the game, the Wolves committed five in the next 3:15, and two more in the 2:56 after that. It was 73-77 after three, 18-30 for the third quarter.
That set the stage for a delightfully tense final stanza, a rare game in which the Wolves weren't blown out before the inane courtside hosts--a Szczerbiak clone and an ex-cheerleader--announced the t-shirt toss. Ramon Sessions nearly had a chance to win it, flipping up a left-handed shot that bounced off the rim as he was being fouled with 1.8 seconds to play and the Wolves down two, 95-97. Alas, Sessions missed the first free throw, which meant he purposefully had to clank the second and hope the scrum produced a game-tying putback. It almost did, but nobody really got a grip on the thing and the buzzer sounded.
The Grizzlies finished with but 7 offensive rebounds and registered 40 points in the paint (20 in each half), which is more than 10 below their 50.67 season average. In terms of negating the Grizzlies' strength, in other words, the smallball lineup was a success.
2. Half-hearted Second-guessing
Instead of mockery, despair, droll arrogance and other sorts of rancid behavior that occurs when the team you cover on a regular basis gets shellacked on a regular basis, tonight's nip-and-tuck defeat lends itself to second-guessing and 20/20 hindsight. Mine is twofold and not overwhelmingly passionate: That Rambis needed to sit Jefferson a little more in the third so he could play more in the fourth; and that Sessions needed the ball in his hands more than Flynn during crunchtime.
Down 4 to start the fourth, Rambis trotted out Hollins and Nathan Jawai for his center/power forward duo, again fostering my recurrent suspicion that the Wolves' braintrust would just as soon lose a game and get a look at various players in various situations as they would win it by maximizing their personnel and charting development as an important but secondary concern. It's actually been fun to watch the progress Jawai has made since coming over uber-raw after time in the D-League as a preseason with the Mavs. He probably would have played longer if he hadn't picked up his 5th foul just 79 seconds into the period. Jefferson returned and stayed in just long enough to watch another substitution--the insertion of Flynn in a double-point backcourt with Sessions--lead to a pair of Sessions layups, the second an and-1 off a feed from Flynn that tied the game at 83 with 6:49 to play. Back came Jawai to give Jefferson a breather, and out went the momentum of that little burst. When Jefferson returned at the 4-minute mark, the Wolves were down 4 and could only get back half of that before the game ended.
Asked about whether Jefferson was pressing, Rambis said after the game that he thought Al settled too much and wasn't aggressive enough. He also said he believed that lack of aggression was borne of fatigue, and that Jefferson wasn't yet completely in game shape from his knee surgery. It is true that Jefferson scored 8 points on 3-5 FG and a pair of FTs in the game's first 9 and a half minutes, and was only 1-8 FG with just two more FTs the rest of the way. But if fatigue is an issue to be monitored for your recuperating star, why play him 9:54--the most of any period--in a rotten third quarter in which Big Al wasn't performing any better than most of his teammates? Jawai got 5:18 in the third, and Hollins just 1:39. Then, in the pivotal final quarter, Jawai played 4:10, much of it with 5 fouls, and Hollins played 4:42. Jefferson was a plus +6 in the fourth, while Jawai was minus -4 and Hollins was minus -1. There isn't enough room or time right now for me to talk about Jefferson's season thus far--how he's been deployed, the attempted improvements he's made to defense and dishing; it is a long piece in and of itself--but if you are going to put two go-go point guards in your backcourt, as Rambis did in the final 7:16 with Sessions and Flynn, it makes sense to put a guy on the low block who demands a double team. That would be Jefferson.
As for Flynn and Sessions, the numbers show that the ball, at least tonight, belonged in Flynn's hands. The rook from Syracuse had 9 assists and just two turnovers, while Sessions dropped one thin dime and forked the rock over four times. But with 1:22 to play and the Wolves down one, Minnesota called a timeout and Rambis lit into Flynn pretty heavily because Flynn was walking the ball up the court instead of trying to get the numbers advantage in transition. After another timeout, same score, 39.5 seconds to play, Flynn dribbled into three opponents down in the paint and couldn't get off a good layup attempt. These types of things generate distrust. I've seen enough of Flynn's decision-making and Sessions' decision-making to trust Sessions more than Flynn. The Wolves' braintrust acts like that's a given--the point is apparently to give Flynn enough time to catch up. They certainly are extending every chance to help Flynn develop, often at the expense of Sessions. Given the circumstances, this would make a lot of sense if Sessions was a wily vet like Kevin Ollie, or even a solid backup like Bassy Telfair. But Sessions has got quite a bit of talent and he's only 23--he too needs those crunchtime minutes when decisions are make or break. And he's got a four year deal. The choice for grooming is Flynn, with Sessions taken for granted like an expensive insurance policy usually is taken for granted. And tonight's A/TO rate for Flynn would suggest that he's maturing from the incubation under the crunchtime court spotlight.
It's just that I can't help but frame the context as, this is a chance to go 3-15 and win two in a row. The opponent is beatable and the game is tied with half a quarter to play. For that seven minute stretch, give me the guys who have demonstrated they give you the best chance to win. That would be Jefferson down low and Sessions up top, maybe even in a two-man game. But as I said in defining this point, I'm half-hearted in my protest of the strategy--simply a close, exciting game for a change was enough.
3. Simpatico pairings
Early in his tenure here, Rambis said he wanted to try different pairs and combinations to find out which players worked best together. I've always enjoyed that way of thinking and often watch games on the lookout for such synergies, be they lasting just a minute or two or on Stockton-to-Malone half-lives. And what I've seen in the past two games indicates another benefit of the current smallball configuration, this one on offense.
Ryan Gomes as a power forward is an ideal playmate for Jonny Flynn to bump up his assist total. Put succinctly, Flynn hasn't yet developed to the point where he exhibits particularly keen court vision and judgment--he needs the obvious dish opportunities to build up the habit of quality ball distribution. Well, Gomes moves without the ball better than anyone on the team, and is particularly good at flashing out to the corners for either treys or long midrange jumpers. As he said after tonight's game: "I can usually get out there free against power forwards because most of them aren't used to that. Often they are staying home to close off any dribble drives by Flynn. So many of Flynn's turnovers this season--he's committed 61 thus far, 7th most in the league--have been due to heedless drives where he's either been cut off and bottled up, or forced to pass in traffic. But when Flynn drives and Gomes has lost his power forward opponent and flashed out, the dish is a simple kick-out. The bottom line is that Flynn's assist to turnover ratio has been 15 to 4 the past two games, after going 54 to 57 the previous 16 games. And 9 of those 15 assists have gone to Gomes, 4 of them for three-pointers.
By contrast, none of those dimes have been dropped on Jefferson. Flynn and Jefferson just seem like a bad match, especially compared to Sessions and Jefferson. Whereas Flynn likes to take an angle on the baseline or through the elbow by the foul line for his drives, Sessions' signature move is right up the gut, down the middle of the paint for a teardrop. That's a better angle to dump it off to someone in the low block. (When I mentioned how I thought Sessons was a much better pairing for Jefferson than Flynn to citypages.com beat writer Ben Polk, he mentioned that he was compiling plus/minus data that revealed the same thing, so you might want to check over there. Ben is a fine writer and an astue observer of things Wolves in any case, so even if that stuff in particular isn't posted yet, you'll have fun reading his stuff.)
On the other hand, it seems like having Flynn and Corey Brewer on the floor at the same time is a disaster for any half-court offense. Both Flynn and Brewer have a higher regard for their shooting prowess than is warranted by reality. Both also are not especially adept passers; so if the half-court defense is staunch and they get burned a few times trying to stimulate ball movement (which both prefer; they want to play the "right" way), they'll get shy about making particularly proactive passes and either drive to the hoop or launch the jumper. In Brewer's case, of course, the less he shoots the more favorable the offensive result. Going into the Memphis game, he was second on the team in FGA despite making only 38.1% of his shots. Better to pair him with Sessions and Jefferson--or, if it has to be with Flynn, push the pace whenever possible.