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03-11-2004, 12:38 PM
Wolves dealing with crowded house

The Timberwolves have lost at home to an Eastern Conference team this week. They've lost at home to a Western Conference team. In the last six games, they've also lost on the road to an Eastern Conference team and, after Wednesday night, have lost on the road to a Western Conference team.

And there seems to be only one thing in common.

Too many Timberwolves may be spoiling the pot.

When Minnesota began the year, the Wolves were without their starting point guard and small forward from the previous season, and it took them awhile to adjust to the absences of Troy Hudson and Wally Szczerbiak. They actually went 9-8 through the month of November until their replacements, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, finally worked their way into the system.

But boy when they did ...

From December to January and on through Feb. 20, the Timberwolves went 31-7 and jumped to the top of the Midwest Division. Kevin Garnett became the front-runner for the MVP award. Cassell became an all-star for the first time. And Sprewell, well, made everyone from Golden State to New York regret ever parting company with him.

Troy Hudson
Point Guard
Minnesota Timberwolves

21 8.4 1.2 2.6 .420 .815

But then, on Feb. 17, Hudson returned from his injury. On Feb. 19, Szczerbiak returned from his injury. And on Feb. 20, new center Michael Olowokandi returned from his injury.

And from Feb. 20 through Wednesday night, the team has gone 5-5.

"They were more aggressive. That was the bottom line," Sprewell said in the Pioneer Press after the Blazers defeated the Timberwolves Wednesday night, 92-79. "They were attacking us."

"They did everything they wanted after the first eight minutes," Cassell said. "Me being the point guard, I have to do a better job on Damon [Stoudemire]. The three-point shots he made were unbelievable. I thought I had good defense on him."

"They played well," Garnett said in the Star Tribune. "I can't really say anything else. We'll see them again Sunday."

Well, not only will the Timberwolves see the Blazers again, seven of their next eight games will be against playoff contenders and six of their next 10 games will be on the road.

To make matters worse, their lead in the Midwest division has shrunk to two games over the San Antonio Spurs. They're only 2 games from falling to the fourth seed in the Western Conference. They're only four games from losing home-court advantage in the first round. And not to throw any salt in the wound, but for a franchise that has yet to ever win in the first round, that would make a world of difference.

Currently, the Wolves are the second seed and would host Houston in the first round. One drop in the standings and they're facing the Grizzlies. On more drop, and they've got the Lakers or the Mavericks. Another drop after that, only four games as mentioned before, and they're on the road against the Lakers or Mavs.

But also as mentioned before, it hasn't really mattered who the Timberwolves have played lately.

After losing to a Sixer team sans Allen Iverson, they beat the Mavs by 24 points in their very next game. But soon after that, they lost to the Celtics, a 29-37 team, at home.

No, it isn't the Sixers or the Mavs or the Celtics. A look at the statistics shows that it's the Timberwolves.

Wally Szczerbiak
Small Forward
Minnesota Timberwolves

11 6.9 2.8 0.7 .400 .867

From his February return to Wednesday night, Szczerbiak has averaged only 6.9 points per game on 40 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent from long range. Last year, he scored 17.6 points per game and has shot 50 percent from the field for his career and 41 percent from long range.

Since his February return, Olowokandi has averaged 6.9 points per game and 6.9 rebounds on 29.7 percent shooting. Kandi averaged 12.3 points per game last year and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the field for this career.

Since his return in February, Hudson has averaged a decent 10.3 points per game off the bench. But he scored 14.2 per game last year, and in Wednesday night's game, he played only 14 minutes and scored no points. He didn't even take a shot.

And it gets worse.

The rotation is showing no signs of finding any consistency.

On Feb. 24, Hudson played 18 minutes. On Feb. 25, he played 38 minutes. On Feb. 27, he was back down to 17 minutes.

On Feb. 24, Szczerbiak played 18 minutes. On the 25th, he was up to 23 minutes. He missed the next game and was back down to 18 minutes by Feb. 29.

Also on Feb. 24, Olowokandi played 16 minutes. On Feb. 25, he played 30 minutes and on Feb. 27 he played 32 minutes. But on Feb. 29, he was back down to 16 minutes.

And that was just in February before going 2-3 in March so far.

And it's affecting more than just the returning players.

Since Feb. 20, Sprewell is averaging 13.8 points per game after averaging 18 before that date. Cassell is also down to 17.3 after averaging 21. Of course, one would expect individual scoring to go down once more scorers returned to the lineup. But the Timberwolves never expected this.

The Timberwolves have lost four of their last six games and we can't help but remember that between Dec. 1 and Feb. 20, when the team went 31-7, Szczerbiak, Hudson and Olowokandi played a total of only nine games combined.

Talent can overcome fatigue
By Greg Anthony

This week marks the "Return of the Jedi(s)," guys who hold the key to their team's success come playoff time. Karl Malone is expected back for the Lakers' on Friday in Minnesota. Kobe Bryant made his triumphant (and surprising) return in Boston on Wednesday, the same night Jason Kidd and Tim Duncan took the floor again. And while statistically not dominant, Kidd and TD did allow their teams to get back on the winning track.
The playoffs are here, and so are your e-mail, let's get to them.

James P. Catello from Vermont writes,
Kevin Garnett
Minnesota Timberwolves

65 24.7 13.9 5.0 .498 .775

Thanks for your intelligent insights and analysis. I can't get enough. But there is one major issue that everyone either shies away from or simply doesn't know how to address. As a psychologist and a sports handicapper, I emphasize issues like character, intelligence, leadership abilities, emotional strength, etc. more than match-up issues.

I was easily on target predicting the recent relapses of the Timberwolves and the Nuggets -- both due to emotional exhaustion. No individual or team can sustain that much emotional energy night after night for months. Emotional energy has more of an impact on performance than anything else. KG's passion may be enough to revive the Wolves, but everyone on the Nuggets is emotionally flat. Have you thought about these issues? I'm eager to read your thoughts about issues like emotional energy, intelligence and leadership and their influence in determining playoff teams. Thanks again.

A: Great question, Jim. First, emotional energy does get you only so far, and you're right that leadership and intelligence are also extremely important in a team's overall success. But when dealing with the human psyche, I'm always amazed at the heights that greatness can achieve. Think about the Bulls' amazing 72-10 record -- that obviously was not done on emotional energy alone. Also remember, in a team game with as much energy as these guys use, experience is an attribute that also teaches you how to harness your emotions and focus on doing what's needed to win. Better teams and players have an advantage.

Yes, Minnesota and Denver both struggled of late, but all teams, because of the human element, will have letdowns. The key is how long will they last and what will be the lasting impact? This is where other components come in -- coaching, chemistry, goals, etc. So as you well know, there is no easy answer. Many variables play a role.

Jimmy Whitner from Chicago asks,
What is yor assessment of the Pistons with the addition of Rasheed Wallace? It seems their defense has turned it up a notch. Can they in your opinion get out of the East?

Chauncey Billups
Point Guard
Detroit Pistons

67 17.4 3.6 5.4 .393 .884

A: No question they can, but it will depend on Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton (mainly Chauncey) to make other people better. It gives them confidence and gets them to compete at a higher level when the competition you face gets better, as it surely will come playoff time. With Tayshaun Prince and the brothers Wallace, Detroit will be hard to beat.

Thanks for the e-mail. Keep them coming, and I will try to respond to as many as possible.

Peep Show

Los Angeles Lakers: Phil Jackson says soon. "I would be genuinely surprised if he didn't play Friday," Jackson said of the Mailman's return to action in the Los Angeles Times. Karl Malone says even sooner. "If he would have said, 'Karl, we want you on the floor tonight, I would have done it,' " Malone said. If he does return Friday, it would mark only the 22nd time all season that Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton and Malone have played together all season.

Milwaukee Bucks: T.J. Ford has more to worry about than the rest of the regular season. A second MRI revealed bruising along his spinal cord. "We're going to be very cautious with this," general manager Larry Harris said in the Journal Sentinel. "We want to do everything on his behalf before he comes back and plays. We're really conferring with the doctors, and we're still doing more testing over the next 10 days." The Bucks say he will miss the next two to four weeks at least. "Right now, I have to wait for a couple weeks and get evaluated again," Ford said. "There's nothing I can do about it. I just have to let the Man above take care of it."

Houston Rockets: How does Jeff Van Gundy really feel about his team defense falling from first in the league to third. "Since the All-Star break," he said in the Houston Chronicle, "I think our defense has been mediocre." And the message is getting through to his players. "We have got to get back to doing it. That's what kept us in a lot of games," forward Jim Jackson said. "That's what we built our reputation on as far as playing defense. So we have got to get back to that. It's real key, because you'll go through some droughts where you're not shooting the ball and scoring the ball, and you've got to be able to stop somebody."

Denver Nuggets: No one expected the Nuggets to make the playoffs when the season started. But, now, if they don't, a few people don't expect head coach Jeff Bzdelik to be back. "I don't pay any attention to what's being said," Bzdelik said in the Denver Post. "My only focus is on this basketball team and preparing this team to play its very best in each remaining game." And his players can't believe it. "Sure, we took our knocks last year," Ryan Bowen said. "But the way we played last year, you wouldn't have thought it was only a 17-win season. What he's done for us so far this year, I think he definitely deserves a lot of credit. He'll never take any of the credit and doesn't want any of the credit. Sure, right now we're going through a tough time and it would seem like we should make the playoffs. I guess my response would be if we make the playoffs, we don't have to worry."

Philadelphia 76ers: Glenn Robinson has three things that he's sure of right now, beginning with arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. "I expect to be back [by the end of the season], and I expect to be in the playoffs," he said in the Philadelphia Daily News. Currently, the Sixers already the maximum amount of players (3) on injured reserve with Derrick Coleman, Marc Jackson and Todd MacCulloch, which doesn't include an ailing Allen Iverson.

Dallas Mavericks: Antoine Walker, meet coach Don Nelson. "He's my starter," Nelson said in the Dallas Morning News. "He's going to continue to start. But he's no different than anybody else. If a player is not playing well and somebody is playing better behind him, that guy is going to play. I'm not going to be intimidated by somebody yelling or screaming or pouting. That doesn't affect me. I'm going to do what's right as a coach. That's not going to get him any more or less playing time. We'll play the players who are producing. That's the way it should be and the way it has to be." Just ask anyone in the Mavs' locker room. "We all go through that stretch," Eduardo Najera said. "Whoever is playing the best is going to play. It's been like that ever since I got here. I'm used to that. Walk's probably not used to that. But he'll come around."

03-11-2004, 02:53 PM