Jim Souhan: Good things are happening with McHale at helm

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 10, 2009 - 11:30 PM

No denying five in a row is progress, and count Saturday's rally as another crowd-pleaser.

If you've forgotten just how deliciously claustrophobic a good NBA game can feel, you should have been courtside at Target Center on Saturday night. Kevin McHale should have been there, too.

The Wolves beat Milwaukee 106-104 to win their fifth game in a row, giving them their first five-game winning streak since 2005, and if their improvement is relative -- like the stock market surging back to 8,500 -- it's also a matter of fact and trend:

• McHale, who got ejected after the first quarter, is a pretty good coach. He went 19-12 in his last stint on the bench, and he's responsible for this mini-surge.

He's playing the right people (more Rodney Carney, more Brian Cardinal, less Rashad McCants). He's provided a common-sense framework for what had been an aimless offense, attacking weak defenders and pushing the tempo.

McHale has also provided a more positive aura on the bench, using his credibility as an all-time great to coax his players, where his predecessor whined at them.

Long after the game ended Saturday night, McHale was still walking through the locker room, slapping hands, even whispering in Sebastian Telfair's ear.

• Randy Wittman might be one of the worst NBA coaches of all time, and for all of the mistakes that cause fans to criticize owner Glen Taylor, hiring Wittman is too often underplayed.

Wittman went 62-102 as the head coach in Cleveland. He went 38-105 as a coach in Minnesota. The coach who preceded Wittman, Dwane Casey, was 20-20 when he got fired; the team went south under Wittman.

Wittman was 4-15 this season; McHale has gone 7-10 with the same players. While 7-10 doesn't sound too exciting, the style of play and the current winning streak signal a difference in the way this team is playing.

Since Wittman's departure Randy Foye, Telfair, Ryan Gomes, Kevin Love, Craig Smith, Carney and even Cardinal are playing better.

• Foye will never be as good as Brandon Roy, but he can become the player the Wolves hoped he would be -- a combo guard who can drive and hit big shots.

The Wolves knew they needed a dynamic three-point shooter to take advantage of defenses collapsing on Al Jefferson. They thought it would be Mike Miller. Instead, it has been Foye.

• If McHale ever finds the guy who spent a first-round draft pick on McCants, he's going to strangle him. That would make for quite a YouTube moment.

Against Oklahoma City, McHale used McCants only in garbage time, inserting him as a point guard (which is funnier than the collected works of Richard Pryor) along with Mark Madsen (which is funnier than the collected works of Chris Rock).

Carney is getting most of McCants' minutes now, and it's about time.

• McCants is on his way out of town for the same reason that Smith and Gomes are working well in the starting lineup, and Love is growing on anyone who's paying attention.

Those who bash the NBA don't like this admit this, but this is a character league. You can be a talented idiot and make a lot of money, but most championships are won by teams that play hard, that play defense, that play together.

The Wolves' new, shortened rotation rewards players who grind.

• Gomes is becoming a defensive stopper. "He's strong," McHale said. "He's very smart. He just understands angles. He can body people. He's a big, strong kid, so it's hard to move him around. He takes away one thing -- their ability to post up normally."

You can't say anything nice about McHale in this town without getting your house egged, but he's done a lot of good coaching what just a couple of weeks ago was the second-worst team in the NBA.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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