Beware the darkhorses
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

As the NBA season dashes toward the finish line, two darkhorse teams are under the whip and nipping at the heels of the frontrunners.

Allen Iverson and Larry Brown
The answer apparently is to listen to Larry Brown.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are jockeying for home-court position in the first round of the playoffs, while the Philadelphia Sixers are intent on at least overtaking New Jersey and securing the second seed in the East's postseason party. Why are both ballclubs peaking in the home stretch and, more importantly, how far can they run?

Credit the Sixers late-breaking success (15-4 since the All-Star break) to The Answer finally figuring out The Question: "What do I have to do to make the Sixers a better team?"

  • Initiate a play with a simple pass.
  • Avoid undue punishment by being as creative in dropping assist-passes in the shadow of the basket as in finding shot-slots while being thumped by the big men.
  • Don't take every available outside shot.
  • Understand the necessity of letting Larry Brown occasionally designate plays for Derrick Coleman, Eric Snow, Kenny Thomas, Aaron McKie and even for Keith Van Horn.
  • Continue to ballhawk and ambush the passing lanes.
  • Because Iverson is beginning to share the ball, there's more space and time for the Sixers to have a well-balanced offense. That said, AI is still launching too many long-range missiles -- certainly more than his field-goal percentages justify (.409 overall, and a measly .275 from beyond the arc).

    What else is working for Philly?

    Coleman's ability to face up from as far out as the 3-point line opens the middle for the guards and forwards to penetrate. A natural power forward playing center, Coleman can be very effective against the other Eastern Conference middlemen -- who are mostly undersized (Ben Wallace, Kurt Thomas), soft (Jermaine O'Neal, Tony Battie), or earnest pluggers with limited talents (Andrew DeClerq, Brad Miller).

    Snow and McKie seem to be responding to their greater involvement in the offense by working harder at the other end. Snow, in particular, is playing the best ball of his career.

    Van Horn isn't missing too many layups and open perimeter shots, isn't committing too many turnovers as he habitually spins blindly into traffic, and isn't getting too many of his shots blocked. At the beginning of the season, Brown said that he "didn't know what to do with Van Horn." By now, Brown has decided to isolate him in the low-post three or four times every game, green-light him to shoot 3s, simplify his passing assignments, and provide him with maximum aid on defense.

    Derrick Coleman
    With Coleman spreading the floor, the Sixers have a shot at the Finals.
    Brian Skinner has provided energetic minutes behind Coleman. Thomas is an active small forward with a scorer's mentality.

    And the signing of Tyrone Hill has been a boon for Philly. This is a guy with totally unimpressive numbers (3.1 ppg, shooting .382 from the field, and .385 from the foul line), but he grabs more than one rebound for every three minutes of playing time. More importantly, Hill has been a role player in the league for 13 seasons, so the refs let him get away with murder on defense. A rugged and savvy big man, Hill also sets solid and timely picks.

    With all of their offensive pyrotechnics (at 96.3 ppg, they are the sixth-highest scoring team in the East), the Sixers' case for another conference title rests on their quick-handed defense. They'll frequently trap and press bad teams, but tend to play straight-up against good teams, and have wonderful coverage of all the passing lanes. Their defensive rotations are likewise fast and precisely coordinated, and their quick hands snatch at every dribble penetration.

    OK, so they were smashed in Detroit last Thursday, and they tripped over Atlanta at home Friday. Sure, AI shot a combined 11-for-38 in those two games, and there's a good chance that he might be wearing down some.

    Even so, the Sixers are peaking at the right time, are the only Eastern Conference team with a winning record on the road, and have as good a chance of scratching their way into the conference finals as anybody else.

    Spurred by their overtime victory at San Antonio last Friday, Minnesota is threatening to supplant Portland as the fourth seed in the West. It's inevitable that the Timberwolves and the Trail Blazers will square off in the first round of the playoffs, the only question being which team will have the homecourt advantage. However, this "edge" isn't really all it's cracked up to be, since the two teams split two games in Minnesota, and the Wolves won the only game played in Portland. Still, any ace in the hole can trump a playoff series, and Minnesota has had a hot hand since the first week in January.

    Wally Szczerbiak
    A healthy Wally could mean a trip to the second round for the Wolves.
    After a loss at Houston on Jan. 7, Minnesota's record was 17-16 -- since then they've won 28 of 38 and have steadily clawed their way up the Western Conference standings. What has been the difference? And what does their recent success auger for the postseason?

    The most obvious midseason boost for Minnesota has been the return to health of Wally Szczerbiak. In Wally's world, spot-shooting rings the bell -- his dependable accuracy (42.6 percent from downtown) discourages defenses from ganging up on Kevin Garnett. True, Szczerbiak can neither handle the ball effectively, pass on the go, nor defend rapidly moving bodies, but he brings intelligence and consistency to Flip Saunders' game plan.

    Another plus has been the development of Troy Hudson. Only 6-foot-1, Hudson is yet another shooting guard trapped in a point-guard's body ... yet Saunders has placed the ball in his hands. Hudson has responded admirably with all of his numbers (points, assists, shooting percentages, even rebounds) cresting at career-bests. Although he still has trouble making appropriate decisions on the run, Hudson gives the Wolves another scoring threat to keep the defenses spread.

    Neither Kendall Gill nor Anthony Peeler are reliable point-makers, but contribute by playing defense and executing the offense, by generally hustling and bustling.

    Rasho Nesterovic (currently sidelined with a sprained ankle) is a jump-shooting/jump-hooking type of center who's also posting career-best marks across the board. More a skill player than a banger, Nesterovic doesn't need undue quantities of space and time to be effective and is subsequently a nice fit with the free-wheeling requirements of Garnett's game.

    Joe Smith is more aggressive than Rasho, but also lacks mass. Gary Trent is both mean and massive, but is strictly a me-first player.

    But it's Garnett, "The Big Ticket," who pays the freight. In his seventh NBA campaign, he finally has become the franchise player he was always supposed to be. Just look at his primary numbers -- more than 23 points, 13 rebounds, and nearly six assists per game, with a field-goal percentage of .496 to boot. Garnett's assist totals are up because he has become an adept post-passer (though he's still prone to making too many passes-to-nobody when he's on the move). Add it all up, and Garnett is the source of everything that's good with the Wolves offense. Unstoppable and creative shot-making, clutch shooting, all-around unselfishness and joie de'vivre.

    Kevin Garnett
    Kevin Garnett does it all for the T-Wolves night in and night out.
    The Wolves also have fun on defense. Their clever matchup zones and their generic quickness are difficult puzzles for most offenses. They're able to swarm the ball in the paint, yet still rotate out to perimeter shooters. And unlike most NBA players who are out of control as they move from interior to exterior defense -- you've seen them flying out at shooters and getting faked into the air with the slightest head twitch -- the Wolves can effectively close out outside shooters by calmly assuming a contain position.

    So whom might the Wolves beat in the postseason? Their discipline and character can probably overcome Portland. Since they like the same kind of stop-and-go tempo as San Antonio, it's also conceivable that they can beat the Spurs. But both Dallas and Sacramento can probably run the Wolves out of their patterned game plan, and the Lakers can ultimately overpower them.

    If everything breaks the right way, Minnesota just might survive until the second round. That's too bad because the Timberwolves would easily be a finalist in the Eastern Conference.

    But not even the burgeoning powers of The Big Ticket can move Minnesota to a different time and place.

    Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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