Jerry Zgoda missed the entire Kevin Garnett era, but he's back covering the Timberwolves after working the beat for their first four seasons two decades ago. In between, he covered a bit of everything: Gopher men's and women's basketball and NCAA athletics, golf, outdoor recreation, sports media and a little Vikings and Twins.
I wrote tonight about the Wolves' insistence that they're not looking for a place to nap away the final seven weeks, and while I realize all teams say they won't mail it in, I didn't detect any obvious watch-checking during tonight's blowout. Then again, there were only two players remaining in the locker room by the time reporters were allowed in, so let's just say there may have been some cars warming up in the parking lot.
Can't begrudge them that, I suppose, after a week on the road. But it will be interesting to see if Kurt Rambis' all-cylinders approach might start grating on some nerves during what looks like a seriously difficult month of March. He said tonight he'll relax after the season's final game, and not until.
Some guys are self-motivated, and some wonder why they should bother. Rambis said he's got an unusually dedicated bunch, not a bad guy among them to infect the rest. So we'll see. Plays like Corey Brewer hustling to disrupt a Blazer fast break, catching Brandon Roy from behind (though he committed a foul in the process), seem to show this team hasn't quit.
If that was the Wolves' best effort, though, it's going to be hard to tell the difference if they coast. Funny thing is, the 19-point loss was the closest game of the four routs Portland has inflicted on the Wolves this season. But it just felt particularly awful because of all the costly turnovers. Minnesota committed 20, Portland turned them into an amazing 29 points, and all those steal-pass-layup sequences are especially deflating.
A few more items, while wondering what compelled such a huge crowd (19,266) to turn out:
-- Rambis said he's "not quite sure" that Al Jefferson is completely healthy, an interesting response considering the load that the Wolves' leading scorer has to carry. "We're asking him to make an awful lot of sacrifices to his game that he has never been asked to do -- punching opportunities, rather than running to the left block and asking for the ball," Rambis said. "We're asking him to play without the basketball, asking him to do a lot of things he's never been asked to do, but we believe will help us win ballgames. So he might be in condition to do what he used to do, but he's still not 100 percent in condition to do the kinds of things that we expect him to do." Jefferson, a year removed from knee surgery, wasn't around after the game to offer his opinion.
-- Jefferson had an interesting exchange with referee Bill Kennedy midway through the first quarter, when he was whistled for shuffling his feet. Normally, officials try to get the game started right away, but Kennedy allowed Jefferson to demonstrate what he thought he did -- and then Kennedy demonstrated what he saw. The conversation lasted close to 30 seconds, far more than most officials would allow. Jefferson wasn't satisfied with the explanation, though.
-- Kevin Love played only 22:46, and had only 10 points, six rebounds (zero offensive) and two assists. Is he having trouble adjusting to coming off the bench? Is Rambis docking him playing time? None of the above, the coach said. He just didn't want to use Love at the end of a blowout. "When it gets into the (lopsided) environment like it was tonight, guys like Kevin that would normally be in the game for the last six minutes -- those are six minutes that are gone for him. So now he loses minutes he needed to get him up to where his average is."
-- Portland is now 12-3 on the second night of back-to-back games. Absolutely astonishing for an eighth-place team.
-- The Wolves, big crowd Saturday notwithstanding, normally have a lousy homecourt atmosphere -- not the fault of the diehards who show up, but there are just way too few of them to provide much of a lift. So at a time when commissioner David Stern says the league is losing money practically everywhere, the Wolves' new ticket promotion is remarkable in its aggressiveness: They're slashing lower-bowl prices -- but only in March -- to levels never before seen in the franchise's two decades. There are $10 tickets just below the suites, $15 tickets behind the basket, and pretty much everything not between the baselines is available for $30. It's so difficult to find new customers for a 14-win team, particularly with the competition in town -- the Vikings nearly made the Super Bowl, and the Twins are opening a new park -- that they figured all the revenue lost in the short term would be worth it if they can grow the pool of ticket-holders who will want to stick around if the team grows into a winner. I'll be interested to see whether rock-bottom prices (lowest in the league by quite a bit, they say) can revive a fan base numbed into unconsciousness by all the losing. Give them credit for trying something radical, and if the game-night atmosphere improves, that's a bonus, too.
-- PHIL MILLER
The Timberwolves' last loss was on Jan. 27, and only three NBA teams -- Cleveland, Phoenix and Utah -- can go farther back than that since their last defeat. No, they're not exactly moving into playoff contention, but the Wolves are enjoying their four-game run. The atmosphere in the Wolves' locker room is certainly different.
Case in point: After talking to reporters about his 15-point third-quarter scoring spree for a few minutes, Corey Brewer walked into the trainer's room, then suddenly returned, realizing he had forgotten to give Ryan Gomes proper recognition for his 20-point first half.
Those hot streaks wouldn't have meant as much, of course, if Jefferson hadn't gone on one of his own, scoring 12 straight points at one stretch of the fourth quarter to take over the game. The last of those six straight baskets, a one-handed 10-footer, had Jefferson smiling as he ran up the floor, reminiscent of Michael Jordan's palms-up, I-can't-explain-it shrug during the 1992 NBA Finals. "I was feeling it. I was feeling good," Jefferson said. "Shots were just going in."
Jefferson's arms began cramping as he talked to reporters, and he said the game took a lot out of him. Not that he cared, not with his team on a four-game winning streak. "I even got winded, but the energy was coming out of somewhere for me -- out of nowhere," he said. "My whole body is sore, cramping up. But it's part of the game."
The winning streak is particularly enjoyable, Jefferson said, because the Wolves are paying back some past pain. Their victims have included the Clippers, who beat them by 25 in their previous visit; the Knicks, who won by 27 in New York; the Mavericks, who won by 12 in November; and the Grizzlies, who administered a 135-110 thumping in Memphis last month that may have represented the non-competitive low point of the Wolves' season.
"We owed these teams," Jefferson said. Hey, good news: If the Timberwolves can keep paying back every team that's whipped up on them during this 13-38 season, the Revenge Tour has a lot more stops to make.
A few more odds and ends before the Wolves take Super Bowl Sunday off (a revelation that came as something of a shock to the practice-happy Wolves):
-- The Grizzlies had won the first three games between the teams this season, and coach Kurt Rambis pinpointed why: The Wolves were consistently outplayed immediately after halftime, outscored 93-58 in the third quarter of those games. "That's been our downfall. You take away the third quarter, we're up in two of them," the coach said. That didn't happen Saturday, and Brewer made sure of it. The Wolves' shooting guard, held to two points on 1-for-7 shooting in the first half, suddenly found his shooting stroke in the second half. Brewer made seven of his nine shots in the third quarter, putting up 15 of his 17 points in the period, and Minnesota outscored Memphis 29-25 in the quarter. "I just kept playing. Coach said 'Keep taking your shot, it's going to go in," Brewer said. "And he was right."
-- Ryan Hollins' amazing three-game run stalled, and it looked like he heard it from Rambis a few times. Hollins stood several feet outside Minnesota's huddle after one lecture from his coach, apparently trying to keep his composure. Hollins finished with four points and three rebounds in 25:49. That comes after three consecutive games of 15 or more points -- a remarkable stretch considering he's scored 15 points just five times in his entire four-year career.
-- Lionel Hollins -- no relation, that I'm aware of -- wasn't exactly impressed with the Wolves' victory, probably because his team played Friday night, too, losing at home to Houston. "Every game is different. They beat us tonight, and that is all it is," the Memphis coach said after the Grizzlies' third straight loss. "It is not because we can't hold leads, or we don't match up. They just beat us. They played well and they executed down the stretch."
-- I mentioned it in the game story, but Jonny Flynn came out of the game four minutes into the second half, and never returned. Rambis said he tried to put Flynn back in, but the rookie talked him out of it because Ramon Sessions was playing so well (19 points, six assists). Flynn wasn't bad, though his shot wasn't falling; he scored six points on 2-for-5 shooting, with five assists. "That means a lot to me as a coach, that players will make sacrifices for the benefit of the team, even when it costs them playing time," Rambis said. "I really appreciate that from Jonny." So did Jefferson, who assured us he would never have given away playing time when he was a rookie. "He just said, 'Let it ride,' and that surprised me for a rookie," Jefferson said. "But he saw that Ramon was playing well, so that says a lot about him."
-- Kevin Love had a funny moment on defense, though he didn't seem to see the humor in it. in the second quarter, he was guarding Zach Randolph about 18 feet from the basket as the shot clock counted down to 1. Randolph just threw the ball toward the hoop, and it banked high off the backboard and bounced in. Love had his arms out as he ran up the floor, gesturing in disbelief toward the Wolves' bench.
-- Brewer made a couple of nice defensive plays, including skying for a rebound after Randolph missed a contested layup that would have closed the Wolves' lead to three with a minute to play. The other memorable play was a steal late in the third quarter, when he deflected a pass and managed to knock it through Sam Young's legs to Kevin Love, who threw it ahead to Brewer for a dunk.
-- PHIL MILLER
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