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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Revamped Timberwolves Defeat Efes Pilsen, 84-81

The new-look Minnesota Timberwolves began the post-Kevin Garnett era with an 84-81 win over Efes Pilsen, a strong Turkish team. The NBA Europe Live Tour game was played in front of 11,500 enthusiastic fans in Abdi Ipekci Sports Hall in Istanbul, Turkey. Efes Pilsen shot just 28-80 from the field (.350). Minnesota actually shot even worse than that (29-86, .337) but enjoyed a 68-47 rebounding advantage. Ryan Gomes had 12 points and 13 rebounds for the Timberwolves, Ricky Davis tied for team-high honors with 12 points and Al Jefferson contributed 11 points and 17 rebounds. Drew Nicholas led Efes Pilsen with 24 points but he shot just 8-25 from the field. He also had five rebounds and a game-high four assists. Andre Hutson, a name familiar to Midwesterners from his playing days at Michigan State and Trotwood-Madison (Oh.) High School, added 15 points and a game-high 18 rebounds for Efes Pilsen.

Efes Pilsen led by as many as five points in the first quarter, scoring repeatedly on back door cuts. At times, the contest looked like Team USA versus Greece in the 2006 Olympics but Minnesota rallied to take a 41-39 halftime lead. The second half of the game was also very tightly fought. Hutson's three point play put Efes Pilsen up 77-76 but Jefferson answered with an offensive rebound/putback and after that play Minnesota made enough free throws to escape with the win. Nicholas' last second three point shot just missed the mark.

My admittedly very early take on the post-Garnett Timberwolves is that the team is obviously young and athletic. However, there are serious questions about the squad's poise, discipline and leadership--I mean, Ricky Davis is the veteran presence in the starting lineup. Need I say more? This is the guy that the Cavaliers could not wait to get rid of before his bad attitude and work habits had a chance to influence LeBron James--and now he is "the guy" in Minnesota. In 27 minutes he shot 5-15 from the field, had one assist and showed little interest in playing defense. The point guard situation is tenuous at best. Randy Foye is the starter right now. He is a decent player but I'm not convinced that he is actually a point guard; Foye had three assists and four turnovers. Sebastian Telfair played almost as many minutes as Foye did and I know that he is not a quality NBA point guard. Telfair had an odd stat line: nine points on 2-8 shooting, two assists, three turnovers--and eight rebounds, two more than the 6-0 (allegedly) guard has ever grabbed in a regular season game. Clearly, the rebound total is an aberration but his other stats are pretty much in line with what you can expect out of him: he is such a poor shooter that teams can play well off of him, limiting his ability to create passing lanes even though he is quick and has decent court vision. Telfair is also an absolute sieve on defense, something that he tried to make up for in this game by repeatedly hitting guys upside the head after they drove past him. NBA TV's Rick Kamla and Alaa Abdelnaby both mentioned how bizarre it was to see Telfair, who has blocked 21 shots in 214 career games, wildly swinging as if he were trying to block shots but connecting with nothing but the heads of his bewildered opponents. He left so many scratch marks on Nicholas' forehead after one play that Abdelnaby said it looked like Nicholas had just lost a fight with Freddy Krueger or Edward Scissorhands. If Telfair pulls that nonsense against another NBA team's star, one of that team's big men will send him flying into the stands the next time that he drives the lane.

Jefferson and Gomes are two bright spots for Minnesota, as their double double statistics indicate. A third promising player is Corey Brewer, though his modest statistics from this game (two points, three rebounds, two assists, one steal) do not show it. He got a steal right after he came into the game, showed an ability and willingness to guard a variety of kinds of players and just seems to have a very high basketball IQ. Brewer is like a poor man's Scottie Pippen. That does not mean that he will ever be nearly as good as Pippen was; Pippen came into the league as a raw talent, like Brewer is now, and then worked on his mind, his body and his overall game until he became a superstar. All I'm saying is that Brewer has the potential to be a very, very good player and someone who can contribute to a winning program in ways that may not always be measured statistically.

After the game, someone asked Efes Pilsen Coach David Blatt to explain the similarities and differences between NBA teams and European teams. He replied, "The rules make it a lot easier for us to play against NBA teams...The best athletes and the top, top players in the world are playing in the NBA. I think the gap has rapidly decreased and I think without question that the top level European teams are closer and closer to NBA level teams." Blatt added that the FIBA rules, which were used during this game, enabled Efes Pilsen to play zone defenses that took away a lot of Minnesota's isolation plays because FIBA weak side defenders can camp out in the lane, something that NBA defenders cannot do for more than three seconds. He almost apologized for using some tactics against Minnesota that the Timberwolves are not prepared for (both because training camp has just begun and because some of those tactics are not legal under NBA rules anyway) but said that he did this because it was the best way for his team to keep the game close and because his team needs to practice these tactics to prepare for its upcoming season. Blatt said that if the two teams played again in a few months that the score would not be as close (i.e., Minnesota would win by a bigger margin). He also thanked Minnesota for agreeing to play against his team and said that the fair play and sportsmanship displayed by Minnesota will be his lasting memory from the event. Blatt's candor in assessing what transpired during the game only reinforces one of the things that I have said regarding Team USA's performances in FIBA competitions: it is important for Team USA to practice together under FIBA rules as a unit to get accustomed to that style of play. Fortunately, under the direction of Jerry Colangelo, Team USA has been doing just that and has gotten away from the idea of haphazardly throwing together an NBA All-Star team and heading off to FIBA events with minimal preparation.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 AM

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