Posted: Tuesday February 1, 2005 8:08PM; Updated: Friday February 4, 2005 6:14PM
Wally Szczerbiak and Jermaine O'Neal are scoring, but their teams still aren't winning.
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Entering the 2004-05 season, I was bent on telling anyone who would listen all about how great the 2005 NBA Finals were going to be. And it usually went without saying that the two participants were going to be Indiana's Pacers and the mighty Minnesota Timberwolves. Actually, it usually went with saying -- I couldn't stop talking about it. Obviously, I don't fare too well in mixed company.
As it stands, following a Monday night loss at the hands of the 76ers, the Pacers are out of the playoff bracket. Following an embarrassing Sunday afternoon setback to a depleted Sacramento Kings squad, the Timberwolves are clinging on to that eighth seed in the West by mere percentage points. The Finals matchup probably isn't in the offing, and I'll never be invited back to those dinner parties.
The Pacers aren't making many excuses -- no point in that with 39 games left to play, though it hardly matters. The genesis of their problems is a stash of walking wounded that had them struggling to dress double figures even before the December melee in Auburn Hills. Minnesota's problems are multifold, and less tangible. There is an air of contentedness that pervades the being of too many of their core players, laughable considering the relative playoff mediocrity of their conference finals appearance last season.
Minnesota had a nice little stretch to round out the month of January, winning seven out of ten with a revamped starting lineup. Still, four of those wins came at home, and five came against teams well below the Timberwolves in the standings. And their hiccup against the Kings, who were missing Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic, was telling. On paper, a group included Brad Miller, Mike Bibby and Cuttino Mobley actually seems to match up favorably against a Wolves team that seems increasingly reliant on Kevin Garnett and little else.
Though Wally Szczerbiak has flourished since coach Flip Saunders made him his sixth man, averaging 17.5 points on 54 percent from the floor, his high shooting percentage is more an indication of his ability to nail the shots he gets off. If the man could hoist it 20 times a game, he would. For now, the T'wolves are struggling with a second offensive option that can be taken out of the action for quarters at a time.
Indiana's second option finally got his stroke back Monday night in Philly, as Stephen Jackson scored 24 points on just 15 shots, but it has been an uneasy return to action. Understandably, the Pacers are a team without an identity. They struggle to defend as well as they've done in the past, they limp in transition on both ends of the floor, and their offensive spacing continually frustrates Jermaine O'Neal. When Rick Carlisle's plan is executed, O'Neal is given plenty of room to work, as evidenced by his 55-point explosion against Milwaukee last December. Too often, though, he is left to force a tough jumper amidst a sea of outstretched arms.
Too often, in fact, the entire Pacers team seems to enjoy forcing those sorts of shots. The freedom afforded the Pacer also-rans during the stretch of injury and suspensions allowed for an "anyone can be the hero" mindset that they seem incapable of tempering as the team's prime players return to action. Even Reggie Miller, who rightfully has been lauded in the press for his graceful adaptation to a lesser role, can't help but fire up a few ill-advised 25-footers in a halfcourt set. Though the 39-year old has turned in a solid season thus far, Reg is trying to do too much with the ball.
Like it or not, the spark that made Ron Artest so unpredictable was the very thing that made the Pacers so dangerous. His ability to dominate in different areas, attempting passes nobody expected him to try, or in taking shots nobody expected him to make, kept opponents on edge and the Pacers in every game. As good as O'Neal is as a do-everything forward who can score everywhere and nail his free throws, it is the very orthodox nature of his skill set that precludes the Pacers from surprising anyone.
The same flightiness evident in Artest's game drives Minnesota point man Sam Cassell as well. Sam has been in and out of the T'wolves' lineup all season, and hardly effective in the games he does play, due to equal parts injury and ennui. Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale has just over three weeks until the trading deadline to determine whether or not Cassell, who when healthy is as good a point guard as this game boasts, will ever remind us of the player who helped dominate the West last season alongside KG.