Postseason NBA Basketball makes its long awaited return to Downtown Minneapolis tonight when Paul George and the No. 8 Los Angeles Clippers enter Target Center to take on Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and the No. 7 Minnesota Timberwolves.
What To Watch For - 10 Questions
No. 1 - Where should D’Angelo Russell focus his offensive game?
Mike: His shooting will be important, as the outcome of his volatile shot profile figures to influence the game pretty significantly, but he’s most valuable to this team as the quarterback. His best skill to me has always been his passing and the way he sees the game. He’s one of those guys who is able to see things on the floor before they happen. I expect the length of the Clippers to make it difficult on him scoring-wise, but still think he can add a ton of value by running the show. The Clippers will switch a ton, which can sometimes force offenses to get stagnant. It will be up to Russell to keep the offensive “flow” that Coach Finch talks about so frequently moving.
Jack: Completely agree, Mike. I’ve always been most intrigued by the way Russell can unlock Towns and how the Big KAT can create as many easy shots for Russell after the first domino falls. While D-Lo may look to be aggressive after a tough stretch to close the season, I would love to see him get on a heater throwing pocket passes and live dribble skip passes to get others going first. That will open up driving lanes for him — a key point of capitalization for him of late — and allow him to find a rhythm scoring from there. If things get chaotic and emotional down the stretch, I expect D-Lo to thrive like he has multiple times in those types of situations this season. Like him or not, he has playoff experience and understands that KAT and Anthony Edwards need to be the focus; I trust he’ll help get Edwards going in his first big NBA game of consequence, and work from there.
No. 2 - How would you guard Paul George?
Jack: The best way to play defense against Playoff P is to make him feel uncomfortable. There may not be a player in the NBA who can catch a rhythm or heat up more quickly than PG13. Thankfully for the Wolves, they have the personnel to do just that. Patrick Beverley knows all of his tendencies and has at length praised Jarred Vanderbilt’s stellar defense. Given the way those two are wired, I’d expect them to take the majority of possessions, with Edwards getting some stretches on him as well, simply because he can be physical and has the lateral quickness and length to contest PG’s array of step-backs and off-the-dribble shot combinations. I’d keep Jaden McDaniels on Nicolas Batum as a means of enabling him to wreak havoc as a low man (and to help him stay out of foul trouble).
Mike: I understand your line of thinking, and while I love the growth Ant has shown as an on-ball defender, I don’t trust him on a player like George yet because of how well PG operates without the ball. The kid still falls asleep too often when he isn’t guarding the ball, and that’s a nightmare scenario against such a lethal off-ball threat. I’d stick Vando on George while he’s on the floor, and McDaniels in the remaining minutes with TP and even Beverley pinch-hitting for a possession or two.
No. 3 - What should the Wolves’ front court rotation look like?
Mike: As you also allude to, a lot of this depends on if Vando is a threat on offense. If he can make the Clippers pay with a few cuts and put backs, he should play and I’d consider using him as the backup 5 when the Clippers go five-out. They haven’t tried that much, but I’d personally rather give that a shot than the alternatives.
When the Clippers go bigger with Isaiah Hartenstein, I guess you have to hope Naz Reid is able to handle that matchup. The answer I want to give here is just to play KAT 42 minutes, but the Wolves do need to find time to rest him. Personally, I’d like to see them close with a McDaniels, Prince, KAT front court and let the game dictate which guards accompany those three.
Jack: Vanderbilt will make things a little complicated because while the potential of him making things tough on George is quite high, I fully expect Ty Lue to assign Zubac to guard Vando, in essence keeping him under the rim. I agree that he has to be in perfect, 10/10 “Raise All Possible Kinds of Hell” form if he is to stay out there for extended stretches.
If Ant can effectively guard George, it makes a ton of sense to give Prince and McDaniels extended run in a five-out offense that can more effectively outscore the Clippers in the half court. If I was Finch, I would start Vanderbilt and ask him to be very aggressive on George in hopes that he either is very effective. Worst case, he picks up a couple of fouls, and can then pivot to a shootout approach with Prince or McDaniels. Keep in mind Prince has playoff experience as well. I agree on how you close — it’ll be interesting to see if Russell is out there to close. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Ant and Pat Bev with McDaniels, Prince and Towns to close.
No. 4 - Which Clippers player are you most afraid of taking control of the game?
Jack: Terance Mann. I can’t be the only one who watched the Clippers epic 25-point comeback against the Jazz last year without Kawhi Leonard. Mann is a rhythm guy who catches defenses slipping with cuts all over the floor, is lightning quick with the ball in his hands against slower defenders, is a good finisher around the rim. If defenders sag off him, he can knock down 3s, as he did in Game 6 last year against Utah. He dropped an outrageous 39 points, including 20 in the third, in that game on the road Salt Lake City to kick off the beginning of the end for the Mitchell/Gobert core. That’s enough for me to be on edge, especially with Luke Kennard likely out with a hamstring injury.
Mike: Norman Powell. He’s such a nice player, and he’s being put in position to succeed by Ty Lue. Paul George figures to initiate a lot of action, and I’m much more confident in the Wolves ability to guard the initial action than I am their ability to rotate and recover out of that. The Clippers welcome teams to play aggressive to get the ball out of PG’s hands, in part because they believe in their secondary playmakers like Powell. He could do some real damage on the weak-side.
No. 5 - What is a matchup within the game you’re most focused on?
Mike: Can I say the Wolves vs themselves? The Wolves ability to keep their composure is going to be vital. The Clippers shoot a ton of threes, which can lend itself to a roller coaster type of game. Can the Wolves take a punch? Most of this year suggests they can, but the stakes are bigger now, and the environment will be something most of these guys haven’t experienced yet.
Along those lines, the Wolves desperately need KAT to keep his emotions in check. He simply must avoid the frustration fouls that can come from posting up smaller players. Specifically, Marcus Morris figures to take KAT for several possessions at a time, and has a documented history of getting under opponents skin. Towns has walked a fine line all season long on the emotional side of things, and the Wolves need him to lead by example in that respect.
Jack: I love that one, Mike. I’m going to go with Naz Reid vs. the Clippers front court. Hartenstein destroyed him in the most recent matchup against the Wolves. LA won Hartenstein’s 25 minutes by 22 in the last matchup, highlighting the disaster potential here. If we get a fully engaged Naz Reid that battles his ass off on the glass on both ends while rolling hard to the rim in the Jordan McLaughlin pick-and-roll battery, I can see him being successful.
But if he isn’t adding much offensively or on the defensive glass, I think Finch has to be willing to throw Greg Monroe in there just to give the Clippers a bit more physicality inside just to see if he can rebound. I could see Finch going a number of ways tomorrow, including playing Towns 45 minutes. Even though I don’t think Reid will play much, it is imperative that he is competitive and keeps the boat afloat in his minutes.
No. 6 - How would you like to see Minnesota guard LAC PnRs?
Mike: The cliche answer is to mix it up, but doubling George is the one way to really get the Clippers offense into the flow of what they want to do. I’m nervous about the way LA’s shooters can spot-up out on the weak side. Truthfully, the answer might be to switch when possible. They might need to take their chances against George in isolation, or it would at least be better than letting LA get into a flow of drive-and-kick action. Good teams with multiple shooters and ball-handlers have given the Wolves “high-wall” defense fits for a while now, and this figures to be a problem again tonight. The Wolves will likely run that frequently as their base, but they cannot sit in that coverage for the majority of the game.
Jack: To echo what I said previously, they have to make George and my fellow Boston College graduate Reggie Jackson (ROLL EAGS BABY ) uncomfortable. As much as a 25-point night from Jackson would warm my heart, it would be nightmare fuel a Wolves team that has seen Jackson go for 20+ in three of four matchups this season. Taking away pull-up jumpers is imperative for slowing George and Jackson, who are smooth operators off the bounce but also turnover prone. If Minnesota can effectively mix between a switching concept and the high wall concept, they’ll win tonight. A soft drop should be avoided at all costs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they play some soft matchup zone just to junk up possessions here and there.
No. 7 - Who’s your “X-Factor” on the Timberwolves side?
Mike: As the resident Malik Beasley guy, I am obligated to say Beasley. I’ve said all year that he will win the Wolves a playoff game, and I stand by that. His shot-making and gravity is just so valuable. He’s found his groove again, and the Wolves will need him again tonight. He may be playing the best “winning” basketball of his career down the stretch, and I’d expect to see Beasley play 30+ minutes.
Jack: I was also going to say Malik Beasley. However, for the sake of highlighting different players I will go with Taurean Prince. TP has playoff experience and is very close with several players on the roster. He has the trust of his teammates and has been a candidate for one of the All “Let That Thing Fly” Teams since the All-Star break. If he makes a couple... take cover because he’ll keep launching. He’ll show up to play tonight and, like Beasley, he’s a prime candidate to ride the energy of the crowd and make some big shots.
No. 8 - What, if anything have we learned from the regular season meetings?
Mike: I’ll admit it, I chose this question solely so I could write, “nothing.” Russell missed most of the regular season meetings for Minnesota, and the Clippers have new pieces as well. Beyond that, these teams played three times in November, when basically the entirety of the Wolves team was shooting blindfolded. I guess those games can signal how LAC might attack Minnesota’s defense, but both of these teams are much different now than they were in November.
Jack: Damn it, Mike. I knew you’d slip something in here. I’ll keep it simple. In a Stephen A Smith voice, I’ve built upon my knowledge that Paul George is a bad man by saying Paul George is a BAAAAAAADDDDDD MAAAAANNNN.
Whatever his points + rebounds + assists prop is set at, it’s not high enough. I fully expect PG to cook the Wolves defense. His combination of shooting off the dribble, ball handling, strength and finishing ability is extremely rare as it is, but when you combine it with his All-Defense-level work on the other end, your mind goes to dark places thinking about what that could mean for Anthony Edwards.
No. 9 - What would your response be to the Batum on KAT, Zubac on Vando alignment?
Jack: Beg Vanderbilt to never stay still. Whether he sets screens, cuts to the rim, or just generally causes havoc without the ball in his hands and forces the defense to be on edge, it has to happen. Otherwise, I’d be looking at five out options between McDaniels or Prince at the 4. I think both of them play more than Vanderbilt does anyway, but the Wolves has to be centered around executing how they would like to offensively, while playing as hard as possible and living with the results on defense. I’d favor offensive-minded players in the playoffs, since spacing is pivotal, and newly-extended head coach Chris Finch needs to do everything possible to make things easy for Towns. I would want KAT to focus more of his time on the perimeter and driving past Batum in this case, rather than posting him up.
Mike: I guess you hope that Vando applies Stick-um to his hands before the game and is ready to catch the dump offs that will be available to him? On a serious note, I think he can be useful as a screener. The Clippers want to switch screens, and the best way to beat a switch is with a slip. Vando is a prime candidate for that, and a good slip is a way he could make a genuinely positive impact on offense. However, if the early possessions are ugly, the Wolves must be quick to pull the plug. McDaniels and Prince are good options if Vando isn’t able to stay on the floor.
No. 10 - Finally, the Wolves earn the 7th seed if...?
Jack: Anthony Edwards woke up today feeling like a superstar. We all saw what he was capable of on Thursday night against the Spurs. He is 100% healthy after dealing with a lingering knee injury and is in a groove entering the biggest basketball game of his life. Minnesota needs him to get going early, while forcing turnovers on the other end. It’s been the recipe all year, but Los Angeles is the second best team in the Western Conference and you need your stars to shine bright in order to come away with a win against a superior opponent.
Mike: Other than the stuff we’ve already touched on, the Wolves actually have an avenue to gain an advantage in the possession game. The Clippers aren’t a great rebounding team, so maybe Jarred Vanderbilt can swing this game on this glass? Additionally, Paul George and Reggie Jackson are good playmakers, but they don’t necessarily frighten you as passers. Could the Wolves force them into some bad decisions and get a few easy ones in transition? Sure. Ultimately, the Wolves need their stars to play like stars, but those are a few other ways they could swing a decidedly even matchup in their direction.
- Taurean Prince (right knee inflammation)
Prince was added to the injury report in an afternoon update, after the team’s initial report yesterday was clean. He did not play in Game 82 on Sunday, despite being active with no injury designation. Considering the history of how the Wolves have sent out injury reports, day-of add-ons are normally not a good sign for that player’s availability that night. We’ll see if he plays, but it doesn’t seem good.
- Luke Kennard (right hamstring soreness)
Kennard was listed as questionable yesterday, but did not make the trip to Minnesota and is out tonight.
- Kawhi Leonard (right ACL surgery recovery)
- Jason Preston (right foot injury recovery)
- Jay Scrubb (right foot injury recovery)
- Score: Wolves 120, Clippers 116
- Picks: Wolves -3, Over 230.5
- Score: Clippers 127, Wolves 118
- Picks: Clippers +3, Over 230.5
We leave you with one message, in the words of our beloved Kevin Garnett.
See you on the other side.