Archives For Kevin Garnett

Second night of a back-to-back is hard to win, especially when you’re facing a veteran team like the Boston Celtics on the road. The tricky part is this isn’t the normal Boston Celtics team we’re used to seeing. This is an offensive-oriented team that is harder to keep up with than they are to score against. When you’re a team that misses out on as many easy points as the Wolves did Wednesday night, it’s hard to keep up.

After the deluge of 3-pointers that rained down on the 76ers Tuesday night, the Wolves went much colder from 3-point range. 31.6% is a bad shooting night, but it’s above what the Wolves have done so far this year. However, losing because you made only 14-of-30 free throw attempts in a road game is just frustrating.

This isn’t a good free throw shooting team either. Heading into tonight’s game, the Wolves were 24th in the NBA in free throw percentage. The volume of free throw attempts the Wolves usually get can help them make up for it typically (Wolves have the third best FT/FGA rate in the league). But when you dip below 50% on 30 attempts in a game, there really aren’t a lot of questions as to why you lost the game. Maybe I should write 2,400 words on why the Wolves are a terrible free throw shooting team and see if they can make my effort look completely futile once again?

The funny thing about free throw shooting is the only way to improve on it is to simply hone your mechanics and make them. It’s not like other shots in the NBA where you can devise a plan to get better looks at the rim. You’re getting the same looks at the rim every time. Either they’re concentrating too much or not enough or this porridge is too cold. Whatever the reason is they’re not making them, at a certain point excuses of tired legs and poor conditioning due to injuries have to end and the Wolves just have to make them.

The one thing I noticed about this game is the Wolves never seemed to have much flow on offense while having a defensive presence. What I mean by that is the Wolves were never really clicking well enough on both ends at the same time to go on extended runs in this game. Even in frustrating losses or hard-fought victories this season, the Wolves were able to go on runs throughout different points of the ball game to establish some kind of cushion or some kind of momentum. Whether it was the poor 3-point shooting or the poor free throw shooting, the Wolves were never in a groove on both ends.

The Celtics went on four different big runs throughout the game. They had an 11-1 run in the first quarter, a 10-0 run in the second quarter, a 9-0 run in the third quarter and another 11-1 run in the fourth quarter. The Wolves had a 10-0 run in the first quarter and that was about it. Poor free throw shooting, bad 3-point shooting, and no extended runs after the first quarter. This is how teams lose the second night of a road back-to-back.

I’m not quite sure what else could have been done, either. This was just one of those games.

One thing I would have liked to see more of is the Wolves pounding the ball inside. More than half of their points came in the paint, and they had a real size advantage with Pek and Love on the floor. While Love struggled against KG at times, there was a lot of cross-screening, pick-and-roll switches, and quick hitter stuff the Wolves could have done to get Love a mismatch inside. And once that happens, he can either score quickly or find a cutter coming through the lane. There could have been much more movement.

The Wolves played a game with 98 possessions and typically they like to play around 94 possessions. The tempo of the game was never theirs, and that’s where you want to see them pound the ball inside more. Find Pek when he has position. Trust him to make smart passes out of double teams. Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger can’t handle Pek inside. Neither can Chris Wilcox. When JJ Barea and Alexey Shved are in the game, I’m all for pushing the tempo. But when you don’t have the personnel to push (and without Ricky on the floor yet, the Wolves really don’t), then you have to grind out possessions and punish teams with your size.

Sure, you’re going to get some shots blocked. We saw that against the Milwaukee Bucks. However, eventually you’ll get the other team’s interior to break down. Granted, you might end up going to the free throw line more and that wasn’t a good thing in this game. I’d just like to see the Wolves take advantage of their advantages more often.

Minnesota now has tomorrow off before the battered Cavaliers come to town. Hopefully they can take advantage of the matchup and get back to .500.

Photo by Kris Krug

When we last left our early-millenial Wolves, their hearts had been broken in Los Angeles. It was now May of 2004, just over a year later and a whole lot has changed. Rasho, Kendall Gill, Rod Strickland and Anthony Peeler had all blessedly moved on, replaced by Sam Cassell, Professor Sprewell, Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson. Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson had both missed significant portions of the season with injury. The team was still potent offensively, but with the addition of those veteran scorers their attack was craftier, more deliberate, and better balanced.

But the team’s real improvement was defensive, where they improved from 88 points allowed per 100 possessions in ’02/’03 to 84.2 the next year. Hassell’s manic on-ball D, Johnson’s stoic rim protection and even Spree’s boundless energy all had a galvanizing effect on the team’s defensive culture and particularly on their star. Because that year, KG was on a different plane of existence. He led the league in PER, win share and defensive rebound rate (he was third in overall rebound rate). Ron Artest was the official Defensive POY that season (please), but defensively KG was out of his effing mind. He was, rightfully, the league’s MVP. As a result of all of this, the Wolves had the league’s second best record (behind the Pacers of all teams–bet you’d forgotten that) with 58 wins and earned home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.

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Since there will be no basketball for the foreseeable future and I’d kind of forgotten how terrible and nervy I used to feel when the Wolves were in the playoffs, I thought it might be “fun” to reach back into Youtube’s dark ether and extract some of our past lives. Lets talk 2003. I’m living in New York, with little money to speak of and no cable, watching the Wolves in dark bars, drinking what many might consider to be “too much,” feeling sad a lot.

The Wolves are the fourth seed in the playoffs but as foul luck and the ridiculously stacked Western Conference would have it, the Lakers are the five.  After getting shelled at home in game 1, the Wolves come back to blow out the Lakers in game 2. Then, improbably, after blowing a five point lead with seconds to play and conceding an absurd four-point play to Kobe (David Stern actually apologized for that one) the Wolves manage to salvage game 3 in overtime (in LA no less!). And so game 4 was shaping up to be the decisive game of the series; either the Wolves would go up 3-1 with two more games to play in Minneapolis or the series would be tied 2-2. So I watched game four. And it was almost as nauseating as I remember it.

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Um, does anybody remember this? Because I didn’t:

Two or three amazing things here. First: watching these two young dudes goof off and enjoy each other its really hard to imagine how it all came apart so quickly. Second: can you believe how hard Stephon defends KG’s retardo contract against all the fakes and pretenders? Third: did you see the clip of KG checking Jordan? Did you see that!?

You probably already know that Kevin Garnett called Charlie Villanueva, who has alopecia, “a cancer patient.” And that Villanueva responded by tweetering about the encounter, which is, like, a total violation of macho baller ethics. And that KG then rejoined by dissembling terribly. You may also have seen this moment of malicious taunting. Or this this weird and terrible thing right here. Any way you look at it, these moves of KG’s are strictly for suckers. (Now would probably be a good time to confess that in my very first post as an NBA blogger I made a joke about Charlie V’s appearance.  I thought it was funny, but it wasn’t. I didn’t yet know he had alopecia, but I should have. Pure class over here.) In the wake of this madness, Jay Caspian Kang posts the definitive evisceration of the KG mythology over at the Freedarko. Wolves fans, read on if you can take it. Not pretty:

Anyone who has played pickup basketball has come across the guy who compulsively and needlessly bullies other players. These guys always force you into that ugly headspace, wherein you must calculate what is more debasing: to endure their abuse or to fight back. On Tuesday night, Charlie Villaneuva made a bad compromise by tattling via twitter, when the more appropriate response might have been to punch Garnett in the mouth and let the public decide whether or not it was justified.

I heard that. As a guy who knows from bullies (believe me), I have no doubt that these KG explosions are evidence of some gnarly, ugly bullying. I agree with Kang that the obsessive discourses of power, domination and violence are probably the worst things about sports and are (almost) enough to ruin one’s fanhood.  And, sad to say, Garnett’s mean, ridiculous antics do seem to reveal that his single-minded ecstasy has been infected by these discourses.

What’s interesting, though, (and this is something that Bethlehem Shoals alludes to in the comments of the FD piece) is that when he was here in MN, bathed in frustration and futility, KG’s extreme-o moments seemed really, soulfully moving (is that just the fan in me talking?). In those days, Garnett’s intensity radiated with desperation, and desire.  And desire is most compelling and sympathetic when it’s unfulfilled, when glory is just an abstract, burning fact of the imagination. Just ask Biggie or the Stones.

But things can quickly get boring and gross when folks attain the power they’ve been dreaming of, when strength and authority become the guiding principles. That’s when we get crass and arrogant and cruel. That’s when we start humiliating the weak. There’s more:

With Garnett, there’s always a sense of insecure theater, of a man who hasn’t quite convinced himself of the virtues and authenticity of his passions. We all know people like this in our daily lives—the sneering indie snob, the violently overprotective mother, the religious blowhard. When Garnett started crying in front of John Thompson in that famed TNT interview, I remember feeling bad for him, not because he was sick of losing, but rather, because he, in true Jimmy Swaggart style, felt the need to imbue such wild theatrics into his caring.

Yes I know these impossible people.  And I have to agree that there is something strangely theatrical about KG’s passion–the bellows, the tears. But I don’t think that necessarily casts doubt upon its authenticity; at its best this theatricality reflected a desire to embrace his audience, to pull the spectator into his ecstatic forcefield.

Indeed, I’ve written before that in many ways KG strikes me as the most authentic of athletes. What I mean is that when Kevin Garnett is completely engrossed in his game (that is, when he’s not distracted by his own competitive mania), his energies, his abilities and his purpose are perfectly aligned. Watching–and in some small way participating in–this passionate involvement has been one of the great joys of my sports-viewing life. That these energies do increasingly drive him to distraction is a testament not to some calculating self-awareness, but to an utter lack thereof. Garnett shows us something maybe even more frightening than Kang’s insecure overcompensation: an overflowing of blind competitive hunger so frenzied, so manic as to become performance.

J.R. Rider Against Everybody

Benjamin Polk —  September 22, 2010 — 11 Comments

Photo by Kristi Evans Lenz

Its been more than a week since ESPN opened voting on (and we gave some rather capricious consideration to) the greatest Wolves teams of all time.  The results, so far, are decisive enough that I think we can declare some winners:

Point Guard: Stephon Marbury (64.3%). This is not really surprising considering a) how much more fun to watch Stephon was than Terrell Brandon and b) my guy isn’t even on the ballot.

Shooting Guard: Isaiah “J.R.” Rider (82.2%). All the people that voted for both Stephon and J.R. should be punished by being forced to actually coach that terrifying team for a year. Call it the McHale treatment. Impossible to imagine without deep, healing meditation.

Small Forward: Tony Campbell (55.8%). This is the closest of all the races, and it isn’t even that close–Wally Szczerbiak trails Campbell by more than 20 percentage points. That reminds me, didn’t Tom Gugliotta play more three than four? All things being equal, I might consider taking Googs over Campbell, Wally and even my original choice, Sam Mitchell (although it hurts me a little and doing so would immediately make this team significantly less good defensively. One to think on.)

Power Forward: The Pharoah (98.8%). At least one of you hilarious people voted for Christian Laettner.

Center: Al Jefferson (95.2%). On this squad, KG would have to guard all five positions simultaneously.

Incidentally, ESPN is also curating a little popularity contest/tournament between those greatest teams of all time. The Wolves drew the Jazz (featuring John Stockton, Karl Malone, Pete Maravich, Mehmet Okur and Adrian Dantley) in the first round and lost by an overwhelming 85 percentage points.

Now, I would agree that the above roster (the one featuring Steph, J.R., no defense and tons of terrible shot selection) would get handled by those all-time Jazz.  But I just might give my bunch (KG, Billups, Mitchell, Big Al, West) a fighting chance. Ah, who am I kidding.

Five Against One

Benjamin Polk —  September 16, 2010 — 11 Comments

So the fellows over at ESPN are asking us all to choose the Timberwolves’ all-time starting five. Sounds like fun right? the kind of idle thought experiment that’s so good at whiling away those long workday afternoon, right? Wrong. Here’s my take:

Point Guard:

On the face of things, it would seem that the only clear choices are: the very young, very confident, very skilled Stephon Marbury; Sam Cassell, who hit some seriously huge jumpers and then did the testicle dance;  Terrell Brandon, who was actually really productive in his Minnesota years. Of course, Brandon’s career was prematurely ended by injuries (and anyway, he was never the dynamic backcourt player the Wolves needed during those years) and Sammy’s two ill-starred seasons are still killing the Pups (see: the Marko Jaric trade). As for Marbury: he got us really excited and then he broke our hearts; he gave some insane interviews, he ate vaseline on the internet, he went to China. It was all over so quickly.

So I could choose those guys, or I could choose the guy with the Finals MVP trophy and the World Championship gold medal, the guy who resurrects struggling teams upon arrival, the guy who is clearly (if you ask me) the best PG the Wolves have ever had on their roster. Do I care that Lord Chauncey Billups was only a backup for the Wolves and that his best years came after he went on his merry way? I do not.

And anyway, anytime we anthologize the Minnesota Timberwolves we should make some mention of one or more of their many terrible, terrible decisions. Letting Chauncey go was one of the worst.

Answer: Chauncey Billups

Shooting Guard:

It’s ironic and appropriate that the little ESPN voting gizmo lists Randy Foye as a shooting guard. Foye actually manned the point for most of his time as a Wolf but you would never have known it from watching him play; the way he overdribbled and jacked contested threes, he certainly looked for all the world like a shooting guard. ‘Course he couldn’t defend the two or any other position for that matter.

As for Latrell Sprewell, I have always dearly loved the Professor for his utterly fearless, utterly brazen scoring as a Knick and Warrior, and for his role in the best season in Wolves history. But one year of fading glory and another of dead-legged jumpers and pure locker room poison just aren’t cutting it.

By the way, thank you ESPN for allowing me to see in my mind’s eye Isaiah “J.R.” Rider and his breathtaking skills and his stunning dunks and the ridiculous things he said and did.

Rashad McCants? Ricky Davis? Can I vote for Gerald Glass?

Answer: I dunno, Doug West I guess? See how hard this is?

Small Forward:

The offensive stats tell me I should choose Wally Szczerbiak or Tony Campbell. Campbell scored 20.6 points per game as a Wolf and Wally hit more than 45% of his three pointers one year, but I’m not going to go with either of these guys. I’m going to go with Sam Mitchell because he gave the best years of his career to some godforsaken teams, because he defended and rebounded with passion on those unwatchably bad squads, because he played professional basketball in the Metrodome, because he mentored KG and countless others, because he was a completely righteous dude.

Answer: Sam Mitchell

Power Forward:

Clearly, there is only one player who can fill this spot and that player is, of course, Joe Smith. I’m sorry, that wasn’t funny.

Answer: the best defender and rebounder of the last decade, who is still the best reason, geography aside, to love the Wolves, who (along with Flip Saunders) was the only reason the Wolves ever won more than 40 games, whose throbbing heart still pounds inexorably under the Target Center parquet, I don’t care what his uniform says.

By the way, wasn’t Trent Tucker the best?

Center:

I have three observations about this:

1) I have a soft spot for Rasho Neterovic, don’t get me wrong. But the fact that Rasho and Michael Olowakandi are candidates for anyone’s list of the best of anything pro basketball related is hilarious.

2) Did the Wolves just trade the best center in their history, at age 25, for two first-round draft picks?

3) This is getting depressing.

Answer: Al Jefferson

Summary:

This starting five–Chauncey, West, Mitchell, KG and Big Al–is pretty good. Throw in a solid crew of all time Wolves bench players–maybe like Kevin Love, Pooh Richardson and Trenton Hassell for example–and you just might have a contender (although I wouldn’t put any money on them beating last year’s Lakers). You heard me: the best team 20 years of Timberwolves history can produce, might conceivably have had a chance to win last season’s Western Conference. Sigh.

Finer Days

Benjamin Polk —  August 3, 2010 — 9 Comments

So it seems like we’ve hit a bit of a dead calm in this strange off-season. Seems like weeks since we’ve had any puzzling transactions, baffling public statements or furious rumors. In the spirit of turning our minds away from the flux and uncertainty at the heart our current T-Wolves, I thought I’d bring us all back to what is most likely the greatest moment in Wolves history (holler if you disagree):

Uh, wow, Kevin Garnett was unbelievably good. Anyone else remember that?

Also: with all apologies to Kevin McHale’s second-finest hour (the first, of course, being drafting Da Kid himself), that Wolves crew, KG excluded, was really not very good at all. Can you believe that a team that started Ervin Johnson, Trenton Hassell, and an already fading Spree even made it to the playoffs, much less game six of the conference finals? I know that Hassell iced Peja that series and that Spree hit some big shots, but still, that team had no business being as good as they were. Seriously, how freaking amazing was KG? He was at least this amazing:

Maybe even better.

The Reverse Fix

Myles Brown —  July 14, 2010 — 11 Comments

It was tough to watch Al Jefferson last season. He was a bit tentative, a step slow and what was once a scowl of determination looked more and more like sulking. But it was understandable. He was trudging about on one knee, surrounded by new faces and learning a new system. The writing was on the wall and he knew he never had a chance.

There were flashes of brilliance in Jefferson’s first two Minnesota winters. In the age of the uber-athletic forward, Al was a throwback: an earthbound player with a skill set that aged gracefully. His intuitive footwork, soft hands and endless array of pump fakes established him as one of the league’s best postmen. He worked to extend his range, improved his passing and became even more dangerous. Of course he wasn’t without his faults; for such a fundamentally sound offensive force, he was a woefully inept defender and the aforementioned improvement in court vision was from absolute blindness to mere nearsightedness.

Make no mistake though, Al was much more than a bottom feeder hoarding stats and losses, in the eyes of many he was an All Star. Unfortunately, in the eyes of those who mattered he wasn’t a winner like David West. It was quite ironic. Kevin Garnett was an All Star the previous two seasons on teams that struggled to win 30 games. But that’s just the way things work: prominent veterans on losing teams and tertiary players on winning teams get the benefit of the doubt while the new guy gets the shaft.

He was so much more than the new guy. He was the new face of the franchise. He was the faint hope that a struggling team could recover from losing a Hall of Famer. He was the one who had to rally his teammates. He was the one left to face the media every night. He was a hard worker who made no excuses and believed in accountability, not lip service. He was the leader. He never had a chance.

In his first days on the job, David Kahn provided a refreshing dose of honesty that drew the respect of many Wolves fans. Al Jefferson wasn’t going to be the best player on a championship team, but he could be a dependable second option. Unfortunately, he’ll have to do so in Utah.

Questionable as the circumstances may be, I’m happy to see him go. Too often players aren’t given the time or conditions to develop. They’re treated as commodities instead of projects. Al suffered through some of Boston’s darkest days, only to be discarded in a deal for their salvation. He emerged as a legitimate force in Minnesota, hindered more by injury and instability than any defense. Now he finds himself in the steady and capable hands of Jerry Sloan, who will appreciate his no nonsense attitude, cater to his strengths and bang out those deficiencies.

Hopefully he’s found a home.

Hopefully we won’t regret it.

Losing My Edge

Benjamin Polk —  June 17, 2010 — 4 Comments

Kobe Bryant is miserable. When the Lakers lose, he barely pretends to cover his disgust and frustration–with the shortcomings of less gifted and prescient teammates and with his own imperfections. When they win, the relief seems mild and fleeting, allowing him the brief luxury of  exhaustion rather than any kind of joy. When things go badly on the court, his face painfully contorts. When he hits a big shot, he juts out his jaw and narrows his eyes, just an icier version of the same angry contempt. Over at SLAM, our pal Myles recently gave what is, to me, the definitive capsule of the Kobe enigma: He is “a man who pretends not to give a [dang, or possibly whup] what you think while making it quite evident that he plays for your approval.” He is desperate to win and be vindicated, but that vindication brings him no happiness. He wants us to believe in his aura of magnanimous, carefree stylishness, but turns cold at any suggestion of his own vulnerability.

KG is a totally different animal. In recent years, as Zaza Pachulia, Big Baby Davis and Jose Calderon can attest, his well known respect for authority has verged on bullying. (We should never be surprised at the easy, slippery relationship between power and domination.) But as the playoffs have shown us, the other KG is still alive; the hyper ecstatic who bounds around the court like a child and bellows to the rafters, who seems close to exceeding the boundaries of his ridiculous body and becoming pure spirit. Who shares with Kobe a manic competitive fire but whose joys and pains are totally transparent.

Despite their vast differences, these two are conjoined in ways that go beyond even their four playoff meetings and their shared history as mid-’90’s teen prodigies. Both seem haunted by the Marlo Stanfield of the NBA, Rajon Rondo, the ruthless, unsmiling kid intent on usurping his elders. In so many ways, Rondo seems to represent all that these two are fast losing: the energized legs; the youthful arrogance; the brash forgetting of time and death.

Both Kobe and KG, in their different ways, also seem haunted by our absolutist culture of victory; I’m talking about the notion that a simple binary, winning and losing, is the only arbiter of a player’s, or a team’s, ultimate worth. That winning a title is the only measure of real success, that a player’s place in history can be deeply altered by the result of one insanely competitive series (for a typical example of this, check this Bill Simmons novella and note the way he manipulates his all-time player rankings based on this Finals’ possible outcomes).

To me, this account gets it wrong in two ways. First, it operates on the mistaken assumption–one that the Jordan era seems to have nurtured, if not created–that a team’s fortunes are entirely predicated on the ability of their star to “will them to victory”. We seem to believe that these great players operate in a vacuum. We seem to constantly forget how Jordan struggled until–aided by Phil Jackson–Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came into their own. We forget Kobe’s epic frustrations that lasted precisely until Pau Gasol arrived in LA. And we forget the tragedy of Garnett’s futile Wolves years (well, we don’t forget; we remember that really, really well). The irony here is that, in all of these cases, these great players only reached their greatest heights after ceding some power, that their greatness was actually magnified in a genuine team setting.

The other huge problem with this way of thinking is the notion that one playoff loss can somehow nullify everything a team has already accomplished. Especially this year, with so many teams doing so many magnificent things, I find this view is kind of shameful. Throughout these playoffs, the Lakers’ ability to flow in and out of the triangle and use its nuances of player and ball movement to inflect their more traditional half-court sets has been totally inspiring (not to mention providing yet another object lesson in just how far the Wolves have to go, how many levels of knowledge and experience and skill separate them from these Lakers). And, especially until the Finals, Kobe has shown an unprecedented comfort with his teammates and his own role in the offense.  He moves the ball; he artfully finds open space on the floor; he allows his team’s passing and movement to create shots; its hard to imagine someone so good playing with such trust, confidence and presence.

As for Garnett and the Celtics, their miraculous playoff transfiguration has been well documented. In their victories over Miami, Cleveland and Orlando, Boston has operated at near-cosmic levels of group awareness and intensity. This originated in Rondo’s rise of course (and in the veteran’s ability to accept that rise), but also in Garnett’s defensive captaincy, his smothering of Antawn Jamison and Rashard Lewis, his ego-less offensive work, and his gritty reckoning with his own aging body. None of this–not the Lakers’ brilliance, nor Garnett and the Celtics’ fearsome run–could possibly be tainted by a Game-7 loss.

We paint with these broad, historical brushstrokes because its easier. Its less complicated to remember that Jordan is the greatest player ever because he won six titles than to remember that, for two games in 1996, the Sonics’ pressure defense totally flabbergasted the Bulls. Its easier to look back and imagine that the result of a series was predestined because of the star’s innate qualities than to remember the razor-thin moments, the minute tactical moves, the slight surges in energy and focus that turned the tide one way or the other.

What I’m saying is, lets not do that.  Lets try to appreciate Kobe Bryant not because he has won this many titles but because his fading 20-footer is an awesome sight to behold. Lets try to imagine that Kevin Garnett is amazing not because a Game 7 victory would somehow magically alter his position among the greatest players ever, but because watching him play defense is beautiful. And lets try to enjoy this game not because the result will forever alter the balance of basketball history, but because it will likely be ridiculously competitive and psychotically intense, filled with tiny flows and shifts, myriad nuances of strategy and style. The game is played by human beings, imperfect despite their immense gifts. If we forget that, we miss the entire thing.