The Minnesota Timberwolves were were a blunder or two away from upsetting the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs. Now, they find themselves near the back end of the playoff hunt yet again; but should they feel even more confident about their chances at advancing in 2023?
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reports that Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James smells weakness in the Western Conference and that Kevin Durant (Phoenix Suns) and Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) have the same aroma in their nose:
As confident as the three former champions are about making a run to the Finals, the Timberwolves ought to feel confident too.
While the Nuggets have the much needed support of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. that they were deprived of a season ago and are led by two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, they own an average 19-18 road record and split the season series against Minnesota.
Both point to the Wolves having strong chances at stealing a game on the road and defending home court should they meet. Additionally, the Nuggets give up 17.6 points off of turnovers while the T-Wolves score the fifth-most points in that category at 18.0 PPG and are also fifth in the league with 8.1 steals a night.
Not to mention, with the return of Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota has three bigs they can throw at Jokić on defense and on offense, dominate in the paint against a Nuggets team that allows 53 points per contest inside — good for No. 25 in the Association. It would be punch-for-punch, but the Wolves have enough scoring to land a late knockout.
The T-Wolves have an existing recipe against a Grizzlies team that has not changed much from a year ago. They do the same things well — protect the rim, get to the basket, run in transition and keep their heads comfortably above water without Ja Morant.
Minnesota lost their 2022 series against Memphis due to poor rim protection and coaching mishaps that failed to stop game-altering runs. Fast forward to the present, and the Timberwolves have more experience to amend their previous folly.
Though recovering from injury, Towns had his way with the Grizz for much of the series and there was no answer for Anthony Edwards. Further damaging is the loss of their best perimeter defenders — Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley. Nonetheless, the Wolves have the legs and the size to stymie a whirlwind of a Grizzlies fast break that Desmond Bane feasted off of and deter Morant from leaping over the trees. It will all come down to learning from their mistakes and having the fortitude to deal with Memphis’ pesky antics.
As for the Sacramento Kings, they clinched their first playoff berth since 2006. De’Aaron Fox is the most clutch player in the league and Domantas Sabonis is a walking double-double. Though overlooked, Sacramento is not to be slept on.
Their bench numbers don’t pop out, but reserves such as Terence Davis, Malik Monk and Trey Lyles bring much needed playmaking to their second unit. Even so, when the starters refresh themselves and re-enter the game, they have championship experience (Harrison Barnes), sharpshooting (Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray) and high volume scoring.
Here’s where Minnesota should be licking their chops. In a potential series against the Kings, they would have an overwhelming size advantage. Starting Sabonis at center and Barnes at power forward leave Sacramento vulnerable on many areas of the floor on defense.
This is why opponents shoot a staggering 49.2% from the field against them — the second-worst clip among all teams — and draw the third-most personal fouls on them. This could be a potential breeding ground for Edwards and McDaniels to relentlessly attack and slow down Sac-Town’s potent offense by discouraging them on the other end.
The Wolves still have a chance of reaching as high as the fourth seed by the end of the regular season, as they remain 2.5 games back from the Suns. In the event that they make a last-minute climb, they’d have their hands full against a healthy Phoenix or Golden State team. Though, Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch must instill in his players fearlessness above all else, as seeds one through three have a seemingly impenetrable phalanx that can be exploited in one way, or many.