Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (25-37) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (38-25)
Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7:00 pm CST (TV coverage on Fox Sports North)
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if the Wolves are to make the playoffs they need to win this game. That’s right, I just invoked must-win verbiage for a Wednesday night game in the beginning of March. March Madness, am I right?
Twenty games still represents a good chunk of the season, but at three-and-a-half games behind the Denver Nuggets for the eighth seed, desperation is beginning to set in. And that is before taking into consideration the strength of the Wolves schedule for the final quarter of the season.
According to my legal pad calculations, this home matchup against the formidable Los Angeles Clippers (who have the 7th best record in the NBA) is the 10th most difficult game of the twenty remaining.
The 10 Most Difficult Games Left on the Schedule
- April 4th @ Golden State Warriors
- April 12th @ Houston (road back-to-back)
- March 10th v. Golden State Warriors
- March 21st v. San Antonio Spurs
- April 7th @ Utah Jazz (road back-to-back)
- March 15th @ Boston Celtics
- March 11th @ Milwaukee Bucks (road back-to-back)
- March 25th @ Portland Trailblazers (road back-to-back)
- March 13th v. Washington Wizards
- Tonight v. Los Angeles Clippers
Yes, the Clippers may be better than the Bucks and the Blazers, but the fact that those games are not only on the road but also games that follow a game the night before, the odds of a Wolves win drops. Specifically, the Utah and Portland games are back-to-backs in the midst of a road trip. According to DatabaseBasketball.com, an average NBA team (which the Wolves arguably are) lose road-road back-to-backs 67.1 percent of the time since 2001.
The 10 Easiest Games Left on the Schedule
- March 30th v. Los Angeles Lakers
- March 24th @ Los Angeles Lakers
- April 9th @ Los Angeles Lakers
- April 1st v. Sacramento Kings
- March 19th @ New Orleans Pelicans
- Date TBD v. Portland Trailblazers
- April 6th @ Portland Trailblazers
- March 28th @ Indiana Pacers
- April 11th v. Oklahoma City Thunder
- March 17th @ Miami Heat
As nice as it will be to play the full tank-mode Lakers three times in the final 20 games, the rest of the “easy” games are against teams in the playoff hunt (or think they are, in the Kings and Pelicans case.)
Fivethirtyeight.com has the Denver Nuggets finishing with a record of 39-43. This implies the Wolves would need to win 15 of their final 20 games to finish with a better record than the Nuggets. Even if the Wolves win all ten of their “easy” games, it would take winning five of the “difficult” games to finish ahead of the Nuggets projected record. Almost certainly, one of those games would need to be tonight’s game at home against the Clippers.
The Wolves-Clippers Matchup
The Wolves have played the Clippers twice this season. The first matchup was the 8th game of the season. Remember that time of the season when the Wolves would crater points in the third quarter? Yeah, it was in the midst of that mind-boggling dysfunction.
The second time the Wolves played the Clippers was a much prettier picture. A national television thwarting that featured Karl-Anthony Towns scoring 37 points on 17-of-24 shooting. Granted, in that game, the Clippers started Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Deandre Jordan as they were without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
Unfortunately for the Wolves, the Clippers will be at full strength for the matchup this evening. And with that comes the bear of a task that is slowing down the Clippers frontcourt of Griffin and Jordan. Jordan has especially been an issue for the Wolves in the previous two matchups, totaling 32 rebounds and shooting a combined 16-of-21 for 47 points. Jordan’s combination of size, strength, and athleticism has been an issue for the Wolves’ bigs.
Expected Starting Lineups
PG - Ricky Rubio
SG - Brandon Rush
SF - Andrew Wiggins
PF - Gorgui Dieng
C - Karl-Anthony Towns
Injuries: Zach LaVine (knee) and Nikola Pekovic (ankle) are OUT. Adreian Payne (illness) is QUESTIONABLE
Los Angeles Clippers
PG- Chris Paul
SG- J.J. Redick
SF- Luc Mbah a Moute
PF- Blake Griffin
C- Deandre Jordan
Injuries: Diamond Stone (knee) is OUT
As we always do in game previews, let’s take a look at how the Wolves and Clippers match up using the Four Factors. Reminder, the Four Factors are effective field goal percentage (eFG%), turnover percentage (TOV%), offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), and free throw rate (FTR).
Factor / Wolves / Clippers
eFG% / 51.1% (15th) / 54.4% (3rd)
TOV% / 14.7 (21st) / 13.3 (7th)
ORB% / 27.3% (3rd) / 22.1% (21st)
FTR / .283 (11th) / .307 (1st)
As important as this game is to the Wolves as they grasp for the final playoff position, the Clippers have incentive themselves. After losing four of their last seven, Los Angeles has fallen out of the fourth seed position in the West. If they continue to spiral, a team that had preseason championship aspirations could fall as low as the seventh seed.
Again, this is as close as must-win territory comes for a 25-37 Wolves team. To keep the playoff hope alive home wins are a must.
Prediction: Clippers 102, Wolves 87