We have some clarity on the 2021-22 NBA postseason for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
When the Denver Nuggets beat the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night, it eliminated the Wolves’ chances of finishing among the top six teams in the Western Conference and thus proceeding directly to a first-round playoff series. Instead, the seventh-place Wolves will host the eighth-place Los Angeles Clippers in a play-in game Tuesday night. The winner of that game will be the seventh seed in the playoffs and begin a first-round series against the second-seeded Grizzlies.
The loser of the Wolves-Clippers game Tuesday night will play at home against the winner of the play-in game between the ninth-and-tenth-place teams — the New Orleans Pelicans and the San Antonio Spurs — next Friday night. The winner of that game is the eighth-seed in the Western Conference playoffs and will play a first-round series against the top-seeded Phoenix Suns.
Bottom line: The Wolves have two chances — two home games — to gain entry to the playoffs. Beat the Clippers and they are the seventh seed. Lose to the Clips but beat the winner of the Pelicans-Spurs game and they are the eighth seed. Lose both games and their season is over.
Not a clear favorite
The Wolves will finish at least four games ahead of the Clippers in the regular season standings, but even with the play-in game at Target Center, it is difficult to tab Minnesota as the clear favorite — and there are reasons to believe the visitors may in fact have the edge.
Specifically, the Clippers are the taller, brawnier, more physical team. Their roster also has a huge advantage over the Wolves in terms of playoff experience. And after being ravaged by injuries all season — including the total absence of one of their superstars, Kawhi Leonard — the Clippers have less at stake if they happen to experience a postseason pratfall. Even so, the still-injured Kawhi aside, they come into the game with their healthiest and most talented group of players this season.
Obviously, the Wolves have their own bevy of virtues. If they beat the Chicago Bulls in their season finale on Sunday, they will match the 2017-18 playoff team with a record of 47-35, which happens to be their best record since their lone season moving past the first round of the playoffs, with KG as league MVP, 18 years ago. Their offense is humming — 6th in the NBA in points scored per possession, and second since the All Star break—and their defense ranks 13th in fewest points allowed per possession, their best showing in eight years.
Here are what I regard as the four key factors in Tuesday’s matchup.
In terms of length, brawn and sinew, the Wolves are one of the least physical teams in the NBA. The heaviest of their three power forwards, Taurean Prince, stands 6-foot, 7-inches and weighs 218 pounds. Hustle machine Jarred Vanderbilt is two inches taller but weighs 214 pounds, and Jaden McDaniels is also 6-foot, 9-inches but drapes just 185 pounds over his still-maturing 21-year old frame. The team’s two centers are both finesse-oriented big men, who both purposefully lost weight to increase their quickness and core strength this season.
Of the team’s top seven players in total minutes played this season, four are less than 195 pounds: McDaniels and guards D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Patrick Beverley. By contrast, none of the ten players in the Clippers extended rotation weighs below 205 pounds.
But the Clippers’ advantage in physicality goes beyond inches and pounds on a chart; it is more about the different attitudes and overall approach to the game between the two teams. The Wolves could hardly be labeled as soft — more personal fouls have been called in their games this season than those involving any other team. But the dynamic is similar to the kid in the playground who gets into the most fights because of his resistance to bullies.
The book on Karl-Anthony Towns is to rattle him, never let him get into a comfortable shooting rhythm because of his extraordinary accuracy for a big man from anywhere on the court. KAT is no stranger to this: The off-season program for quickness and core strength was specifically meant to combat it. And his up-fake and hard drive to the basket has become elite. But it is also worth a few fouls to get under his skin, and once triggered, turnovers and offensive fouls often ensue.
The Clippers roster is especially well suited for this. They have a pair of seven-footers, Ivica Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein, who have defended KAT decently in single coverage in the past. But the most effective way to try and put the clamps on Towns is to guard him with a physical but mobile forward, have the center hang around the paint “guarding” Vanderbilt, who can’t score more than six feet from the hoop, and deny KAT the ball or the space to shoot. Both Nicholas Batum and Marcus Morris are rugged, relatively quick veteran forwards who have been in the league a decade or more, understand the thin line between banging and fouling, and deploy other subtle gambits of physical disruption. Then there is Robert Covington, who profiles as more of a small forward but is especially adept at wresting the ball away from opponents via his great hand strength, especially on help defense, when the shooter is making his move toward the basket.
Not that much can be gleaned from the four meetings between the two teams this season, as three of them (all Clippers victories) happened last November in the first dozen games, and the fourth (a Wolves win) was early in January with KAT out and teams groping their way back from COVID absences. That said, nobody flummoxed KAT more this season than the Clips in their second matchup, when he had zero assists, six turnovers, five fouls and only three free-throws while the Wolves scored a season-low 84 points. It was peak “stray voltage.”
One counter move would be for the Wolves to deploy Prince, who has more shooting range and is nearly Vando’s equal as an on-ball defender in the paint, more often at power forward in the frontcourt with KAT. What you would lose is Vando’s tone-setting hustle and ability to extend possessions through offensive rebounds. But it would keep the opposing center from roaming easily off of Vando and provide the greater spacing overall that short-circuits the Clips’ effectively subtle physicality.
Getting reliable outside shooting from Malik Beasley, greater variety of scoring chances from Ant and DLo, and a high-tempo pace overall can also be important counters. Beyond specific strategies on KAT, the Clips have the uniformity of height and hustle to switch coverages effectively throughout the half court. Batum and Morris are both 6-foot, 8-inches, RoCo is 6-7, star wingman Paul George is 6-8. Others in the rotation include Terrance Mann and Luke Kennard (both 6-5), Norman Powell (6-3), and point guard Reggie Jackson (6-2).
So yes, size matters. But experience may matter more, and is another realm where the Clips are strong. As mentioned earlier, the Clippers are seasoned and sage in the art of physicality, which is especially crucial in the postseason when the refs have a greater tendency to swallow their whistles and let teams play.
The difference is postseason experience in particular is stark. Not counting Kawhi, the individuals who comprise the current Clippers roster have collectively played in 97 playoff series, logging 544 games, 301 of them as starters. Even counting emergency signee Greg Monroe (replacing Nate Knight, who as a 2-way player is ineligible for the postseason) members of the Wolves roster have collectively played in 24 series, appearing in 125 games, just 65 of them as a starter.
Eight different members of the Clippers have started for teams that went beyond the first round of the playoffs. Powell has a ring from Toronto. Rodney Hood was in the rotation when LeBron James and Cleveland lost in the Finals and with Portland when they fell in the conference finals. Jackson started at the point for two conference finalists the Thunder and Clippers; ditto Paul George as a forward with Indiana and the Clips. The only member of the Wolves roster that started for a team that went beyond the first round is PatBev, who went to the conference semis with Houston and to the conference finals last season — with the Clippers.
The disparity extends to the coaches. Chris Finch is completing his first full season as head coach and obviously has yet to coach his first postseason game. The Clippers’ Ty Lue has a winning percentage of 63.8 over 80 playoff games. He won a ring and made it to two other NBA Finals with LeBron and Cleveland, and he took the Clips to the conference finals last season.
Tuesday’s game will require an extraordinary amount of poise from the Wolves, who not only are going up against a more physical and experienced opponent, but have more pressure on them to advance.
When Kawhi tore the ACL in his right knee in last year’s conference finals, the Clips new they would almost certainly be without their alpha superstar for the entire 2021-22. When their beta superstar, George, tore his UCL just before Christmas, even the playoffs seemed like a distinct longshot. Undeterred, the Clips pulled a heist on a tanking Portland team trying to clear salary cap space for next season, landing Powell and RoCo in exchange for pennies on the dollar — only to lose Powell three games later to a foot injury.
Yes, George and Powell are back, and there are even whispers that Kawhi may try to suit up later in the postseason. But Lue has already been lauded for the job that he did thus far, and Clipper Nation has the solace of knowing they will have a stacked roster to begin the 2022-23 campaign. Anything that happens the rest of this postseason will be gravy.
The Wolves have also enjoyed a glorious feel-good season, and Finch is appropriately adored by the fan base for his preseason adjustment for the defense and the remarkable depth and camaraderie his transparency and ingenuity have created on the roster. The difference is that it feels dramatically more important for the Wolves to survive the play-in and engage in a first-round series.
For the Clips, making it out of the play-in is nice, but small potatoes in light of recent playoff journeys. For the Wolves, matching up with Memphis or Phoenix is a level of postseason achievement that has been achieved exactly once since 2004, when the dysfunctional “TimberBulls” of Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau endured a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of Houston and then promptly blew up the franchise with haughty infighting and dissension.
For the Wolves to have made the play-in is a worthy accomplishment beyond most preseason expectations. But losing two home games to lower-seeded teams would put excess salt in the aftertaste of this season and add another year to ongoing woe of playoff absences.
Being eliminated through the play-in would damage the thus-far stirring rehabilitation that has taken place in the reputations of DLo and especially KAT this season. KAT has continually, and admirably, noted that individual accolades come more justifiably when your team is winning, and so it has been in 2021-22 thus far. He feels like a shoe-in for All League, and the elevated contract he could be offered as a result. DLo, too, has elevated his defense (more-so at the beginning of the season than recently) in a manner that has driven more praise and respect his way. But as the max-salary guys on the roster, the onus is on them to close the deal either Tuesday or next Friday.
That won’t be easy. We’ve already talked about the lengths and means by which the Clippers will attempt to limit KAT, an obvious key to their strategy for winning. Meanwhile, DLo has suffered through a stretch of poor outside shooting and declining usage since the All Star break, and his acumen on defense has tumbled. The Wolves have allowed 119.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s been on the floor since the All Star break — significantly worse than the next most-porous defender, Ant, who has been on the court for defense of 115.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.
In other words, this is the first time KAT and DLo have been max-salary stars leading a team into the postseason and the situation isn’t ideal for either one.
To further up the drama, the Clippers have made a habit in recent years of enduring long stretches of desultory play, especially early in games only to roar back later. Their net rating in the first quarter ranks 25th in the 30-team NBA: -6.9 points per 100 possessions via 104.2 points scored and 111.1 points allowed. Conversely, the Wolves rack up 115.1 first quarter points per 100 possessions while allowing just 105.4 for a +9.7 net rating that is third in the NBA.
But the Clippers are among the league leaders in comebacks from double-digit deficits, while the Wolves are among the league leaders is losing double-digit advantages and going down to defeat. While the Wolves have a better overall net rating in the fourth quarter, the Clips have had the best fourth quarter offense since the All Star break — 124.3 points scored per 100 possessions — and also sport the 4th best net rating in clutch situations (last five minutes of the game when the teams are within five points of each other). The Wolves are 15th in net rating in the clutch.
Quite possibly, the Wolves will have an early lead and be tested to keep it. Poise under pressure will be vital.
Finch has called Patrick Beverley the most influential player on the Wolves team this season. You can probably turbo-charge that influence level during the play-in, especially against the Clippers. Each of the three factors cited above — physicality, experience and poise — will be affected by PatBev’s performance and demeanor more than any other player or coach in the organization.
For starters, he is the most physically tenacious defender on the team and the competition isn’t close. He specializes in face-to-navel combat from his crouch and crab-sidle, looking for angles to swipe the ball, draw the charge, dissolve the concentration of the man in front of him. At 6-feet, one-inch and 180 pounds, he can guard players nearly a foot taller more effectively than the majority of frontcourt personnel on the roster. And along with Prince, he can work the codes of subtle combat as well as most if not all of the Clippers veterans.
His playoff experience stands out even more than his physicality on this roster. Remember when I said the members of the current Wolves roster had collectively played in 24 series, 125 games and 65 starts? Well, PatBev accounts for 10 of those series, 59 of those games and 48 of those starts.
The final factor — poise under pressure — is a tricky one. PatBev knows he will never make an All Star game or receive a max contract, and he certainly knows he is one of the NBA’s most polarizing players. His answer to all of that is that he is a winner. He frequently claims he has helped propel every team he has been on into the playoffs, conveniently claiming his missing more than 20 games due to injury in 2014-15 exempts him from Houston’s failure that season.
No matter: PatBev is absolutely crucial to the eventual result of Tuesday’s game. In addition to being a torrid physical defender, he is one of the smartest players in the NBA, able to anticipate both coaches schemes and players tendencies to derive maximum advantage. The phrase —“method to his madness” is apt for extraordinary feats he pulls off on the court, which in retrospect are usually more canny and less crazy than they first appear.
What’s between him and his cherished reputation as a winner on Tuesday is the Clippers, where he toiled for four years for a team and a fanbase where he is still very much beloved. He knows the schemes Ty Lue runs and he knows the habits and idiosyncrasies of a large chunk of the existing players still in the team’s rotation. During the game, Finch talks to PatBev more than the other members of the Wolves combined. It’s a safe bet that they have been huddling over strategy for weeks as it became increasingly apparent long ago that Clippers-Wolves would likely be the play-in matchup for the seventh seed.
But poise is still the tricky part. After losing the first three games to the Clippers this season, PatBev went to his teammates before their final matchup in January and essentially willed them forward. “He just told us he needed this game,” Prince said afterward. “It was just perfect how it played out.”
“Pat Beverley did a great job of setting the tone, whether it was his intensity, defense or focus,” Finch raved. The Wolves influencer and cultural catalyst tied his career high with 12 assists. The Wolves were +19 in the 21:26 that he played and minus-1 in the 26:34 that he sat.
Now comes higher stakes, with relatively callow teammates facing a lot of pressure. It is up to PatBev to simultaneously inspire them and settle them, light the flame but keep the chemistry simmering, avoiding evaporation or messy eruption. But more than ever, he also has to keep himself in check. This particular team requires all the aspects of his leadership more than any organization where he has been. As a player who always seems to be walking a razor’s edge between mania and method, he can’t afford to lose his poise, as he did when he shoved Chris Paul in the back at the end of last season.
He needs to tell his teammates once again that he needs this game. And then shows them how to win it.