So where does this leave us? When Rajon Rondo’s name was wiped off the locker room whiteboard, there was a sigh of relief, as the struggling Celitcs of late became slightly more beatable. But after the first quarter ended, so had any thoughts of morale lifting victories. Boston was in the midst of a 32-13 drubbing, to the delight of several new found fans. Ray Allen ran Wes Johnson ragged, Delonte West met no resistance in serving his role as starting point and Michael Beasley seemed intent on breaking a shooting record, if not a scoring one. Woe were the three hundred Wolves fans in attendance.
Then the strangest thing happened. Anothony Tolliver and Martell Webster played the entire second quarter. Darko and the Beas logged all but two minutes. Feet slid laterally with a semblance of urgency, help was called for-and delivered-hands were raised and shots were contested. The Wolves were fervently playing something that looked like defense. It paid off. Boston shot an uncharacteristic 23% in the second stanza, mostly due to poor shot selection , yet our boys efforts without the ball shouldn’t be discounted.
A 19 point lead was trimmed to 13, then cut to just two points. The Celtics continued to fire away from the perimeter and their startlingly inefficient rebounding wasn’t helped in the slightest by Kevin Love’s absence. Meanwhile, on the other side of Target Center, the home team found their offensive footing and seemed primed for an upset. It was all too exciting. But of course, we lost.
No shame in that, right? A valiant effort in the face of certain defeat is all many of us are asking for. Yet it remains to be seen if our efforts have doubled or theirs have been halved. As much as I’d love to relive the good times; exhuming the best efforts of San Antonio, Oklahoma City and even the defending champs, something is noticeably different about these last few not-so nail biters. The opponent, be it Dallas, OKC or even Boston, lethargically trudges through large portions of the contest, knowing that a manageable margin and an engaged fourth quarter will be enough to walk away with the W.
Despite the ease with which the league’s elite have dispatched lesser opponents this season, it’s tough to suffocate a team for 48 minutes, especially if they’re intent on fighting back. So if the only loss is giving a 17 win team a temporary boost of confidence, why bother? Now if this is indeed how our competitors view a trip to the Twin Cities, then praising effort simply isn’t enough. We didn’t stay in those games, they gave them to us. The only folks who care how much we lose by are bookies and grandmothers. But a win would get everyone’s attention. It may not be likely, but keep reaching, boys. We need something to hold onto.
As for the details, I have but one question: Can Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson co-exist?
Allow me if you will, to revisit our trip to Los Angeles. Wes was a man possessed, carrying the Wolves with a commendable offensive effort. He played with poise and moved with purpose, consistently carving out space and taking advantage of mismatches. Once he’d found a rhythm from midrange, he took his exploits back a few feet further and began to rain three pointers. It was a calculating display of skill and athleticism that even drew a smile from his mentor, Kobe Bryant, he of the jutted jaw and perpetual scowl.
Beasley however, was a bit out of sorts. Or perhaps, as Ben explained exhaustively, this is the Beas we should learn to expect. He was determined to attack the basket, no matter how scare space was in the paint, yet he utilized none of the body control or angles of pursuit that would reward him with free throws. Instead, he either drew charges or watched incredulously as a variety of runners and awkward layups missed their mark. In one telling possession, Beasley faced up Ron Artest, took a few flustered dribbles and pulled up from eighteen feet, only to miss the basket entirely. As they galloped back upcourt, Ron took great pleasure in mocking the airball along with the Staples Center’s denizens. Predictable, I tell you.
And this was the best game they’d played together in weeks.
Of course Sunday’s matchup was more of the same. From Beas, at least. Another flurry of low percentage shots, though this time his makes were more timely. But in his rush to assume a leadership role, he left Wes behind with just nine shots in 32 minutes. Granted, Beasley’s ability to create off the dribble far surpasses Wes’, however it’s hardly a virtuoso display worthy of such inattentiveness.
The initial impression is that Wes is entirely too meek to demand the ball and Beas is entirely too headstrong to acquiesce, but these two do realize they’re on the same team, right? For all of Kurt Rambis’ twenty second scoldings of Johnson, he does acknowledge that’s his second best scorer….right? So instead of simply telling Wes to be more aggressive, run a few sets for him. Don’t let Beasley usurp them either. If there won’t be any more Love this season, use it as an opportunity to tinker with his other tandem. For it would be a shame if one man’s confidence needed to come at the expense of a teammate’s. Especially if said teammate may actually be the better player.
Last and certainly not least, Kevin Garnett.
That dark, lithe and sinewy frame was a sight for 36,000 sore eyes. Stationing himself in the post, with those long arms waving above the crowd, he whisked a touch pass off the entry to an open Nenad Kristic. Kristic’s layup was blocked, but K.G. secured the loose ball and found Paul Pierce for three. Then he set an inescapable screen, freeing Ray Allen for three. He casually dropped a look-away bounce pass through the lane, hitting Glen Davis in stride. He set another screen for Pierce and upon receiving the kickout, unleashed a fastball in to a wide open Kristic for a dunk. He demanded the ball from Delonte West, not to shoot, but to feed Pierce’s mismatch with Luke Ridnour. And in the waning minutes, he took his familiar position on the left block, shook left, spun right and gracefully faded away along with the Wolves chances. Though it was an understated performance in just his third game back ‘home’, he didn’t disappoint. 13 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists, with a simmering intensity only the league’s most unique specimen could provide.
Speaking of that intensity, sadly, Garnett’s most telling moment may have been in failure. Freed on the wing by a fallen defender, K.G. found himself ball in hand, fifteen feet from the rim with Anthony Tolliver as his only obstacle. With one pound of the ball and two swift strides, K.G. rose…..but not as much as he used to. What once would have ended in a violent assault on the rim is now a mere pass out of a layup. No primal scream, just a resetting of the offense.
But there he was, snatching a missed free throw with the same ferocity that he has for years, long after the game was decided. Upon the ensuing foul, he found himself near the basket as Ray Allen readied himself for two more freebies. His eyes scanned the crowd while they filed toward the exits and his lips curled up into an unmistakable sneer as he muttered to himself.
Now whether this was directed at anyone in particular is debatable. But what should be clear to all those who question if his rabid play borders on bullying is that he’s simply making up for lost time. Good times; our first playoff berth, an MVP, that fateful trip to the Western Conference Finals; but ultimately lost time. No matter how much he may love ‘Sota, knowing this season is his last chance to secure another championship and cement a legacy, every minute spent in this arena must stir up a deep sense of regret.
We missed you too, buddy.