The Western Conference playoff chase is shaping up to be both unprecedented and mediocre, as far as team records go. The Minnesota Timberwolves are right in the thick of the mess between fifth place and 12th place, a gap that spans just three games in the standings while each team has less than 10 games to play.
The variation of possible outcomes for Minnesota trends from very promising and favorable to extremely disappointing. Finishing outside the Play-In tournament would be less than ideal, even with the fact in hand that Karl-Anthony Towns has missed 52 games this season. For speculation’s sake, let’s say the Wolves don’t miss the playoffs altogether, and are able to jump as high as the sixth seed or they emerge from the play-in unscathed. Which foe would you like to see in round one?
I like the matchup with Denver a lot. They aren’t scorching hot by any means (5-5 in their last 10 games as of this writing) and a fully healthy Wolves roster could pose problems for the Nuggets defense.
Aaron Gordon is the key. It’s common practice around the league now to guard Gordon with a center and play him in a gap while putting a more athletic, versatile defender on Nikola Jokic. Gordon is shooting 33% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers this season, per NBA Stats — not quite a respectable clip to warrant a defender glued to him. Recently, players like Jakob Poeltl, Kristaps Porzingis and Nic Claxton have been assigned Gordon, and he hasn’t made them pay from downtown a whole lot. They can roam a bit when Gordon hangs on the perimeter and make a difference in help defense.
Rudy Gobert has guarded Gordon for more than six minutes of game time this season, per NBA stats, and Gordon shot 2-10 from the field with Gobert as his primary defender. The return of Karl-Anthony Towns is huge offensively but also for the Jokic assignment, as he can provide a bit more resistance than someone like Kyle Anderson.
Towns also goes off anytime he faces the two-time MVP. In 22 career games against Jokic, KAT is averaging 24 points, 11 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 54/40/85 shooting. The Wolves are 9-13 in those matchups, but not many of them have included Kyle Anderson or Mike Conley - the two stabilizing forces in the starting lineup lately.
If the Wolves do end up as the eighth seed - which would require a do-or-die game in some fashion, bless our hearts - I think the mindset going into that matchup carries a ton of confidence in Minnesota.
The announcement of a 2-7 rematch with Memphis might blow the ceilings off of FedEx Forum and Target Center simultaneously before the teams step on the court for the series. There is some clear rivalry in that pairing and another round of it would be extremely fun for all parties.
That said, the Grizzlies have no comfort of continuity nor health in recent weeks. They lost Brandon Clarke for the season (Minnesota might have won last year’s series if not for Clarke’s offensive rebounding prowess), Steven Adams has been hurt for an extended period and Ja Morant just returned from his personal hiatus. They are being carried by Jaren Jackson Jr. lately, who’s scoring 22.4 points per game in March.
Many narratives around the league indicate the Grizzlies are in a vulnerable position as the regular season winds down. I think their energy is still super contagious and they can get rolling fast if Morant doesn’t take long to knock the rust off. But their lack of playable size right now definitely helps the Wolves with Towns back and Jackson still being extremely foul-prone. I’m not sure what Memphis can do to stop Anthony Edwards, either. This series would definitely go six or seven games again, and with the extra veteran leadership on the roster, stray voltage would hopefully be at a minimum to plug up the infamous blown leads of 2022.
Congratulations, you just got gifted a series of Timberwolves vs. Kings. No defensive assembly required!
The matchups so far between Minnesota and Sacramento have been entertaining, to say the least. Minnesota won by seven, lost by seven in overtime and won by four in the first three meetings. They’ll see each other again Monday for the final time.
I’m a huge fan of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. Who wouldn’t be? Their synergy with dribble handoffs and elbow action is tough to guard. But Jaden McDaniels has been up to the task so far when guarding Fox. Swipa has shot less than 50 percent from the field on 20 or more shots each game against Minnesota this season.
The Kings and Timberwolves haven’t faced off in the postseason since 2004. (I think Wolves fans and Kings fans are tied for the most team factoids that end in “since 2004” ever). It would be high-powered, high-energy, and involve many ups and downs. These are still two teams that haven’t experienced enough pressure in high-stakes situations and come out on the winning end of them - another long series could be in store.
Bottom line, I think the Timberwolves would have plenty to be confident about regardless of matchup in the playoffs. The next two weeks are all that stand in their way to escape the mess and have four to seven chances at overcoming a ton of adversity this year and getting to a second round series. And oh yeah, Karl-Anthony Towns and are gonna be back on the floor together.