Blazers or Bust

If the Wolves get past the first round of the playoffs, they...could...go...most of...the way!

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

Barring a collapse by the suddenly Tim Duncan-less San Antonio Spurs, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be facing the Portland Trailblazers in the first round of the playoffs beginning this week. With the home-court advantage and a clearly superior depth of talent, the Blazers will be where the smart money--and mine, if I were a betting man--will land. But there are plenty of reasons the Wolves should at least make it interesting--and just might spring an upset.

First of all, a team brimming with high-priced stars is nice to have over the course of a grueling 82-game season, but matters get more complicated during a short, pressure-packed playoff series. Legitimately large egos have a way of disrupting the pecking order when it comes to make-or-break decisions about who plays the crunch-time minutes or takes the game-deciding shot. This could be especially true of Portland, whose triumvirate of stars come with some prime-time baggage.

Forward Rasheed Wallace, probably the most skillful Blazer, is an emotional geyser whose 37 technical fouls are more than twice as many as any NBA player had this year. Wallace's ire at opponents' jousting and referees' whistles will only increase in a playoff environment where high stakes and multiple games against a common opponent constitute a breeding ground for grudges. But Wallace's meltdowns in the playoffs against San Antonio last year paled next to those of his team's point guard Damon Stoudamire, who openly feuded with coach Mike Dunleavy over the minutes accorded backup point guard Greg Anthony, then absolutely tanked the Blazers' elimination game against the Spurs. And the past playoff heroics of new Blazer Scottie Pippen will forever be marred by Pippen's refusal to go back into the game a few years back after then-Bulls coach Phil Jackson called a play for one of Pippen's teammates during the final seven seconds.

Attitude problems are not the Blazers' only potential pitfall. Portland's gargantuan center Arvydas Sabonis has always been a matchup nightmare for the Wolves, who lack a similarly capable and burly big man down near the basket. But Sabonis is lugging his 292 pounds around on a sore foot that put him on the sidelines as recently as last week. The fifth member of the Blazers' glittering starting lineup is shooting guard Steve Smith, a level-headed veteran marksman who provides the team with some much-needed stability and scoring consistency. But to generate many of his points, the six-foot-eight Smith relies on the height advantage he frequently enjoys over opposing guards, and in Malik Sealy, he has met his match. Earlier this month Sealy hounded Detroit's All-Star guard Jerry Stackhouse into 11 straight misses (and a 2-for-15 shooting performance overall)--an unsung but crucial component of a last-second Wolves victory.

In short, should the Blazers stumble during the series, the Wolves are poised to seize the opportunity. Coach Flip Saunders has the team overachieving its relatively mediocre talent level with a half-court passing offense that is one of the league's best. The club is confident without being cocky--and they've learned how to win the close ones, as demonstrated by their 6-1 slate in overtime contests. Unlike Portland, Minnesota has a clearly defined pecking order that, owing to the selflessness of stars Kevin Garnett and Terrell Brandon, retains flexibility. If Saunders calls for the ball to go to Sealy in a game-deciding situation, neither KG nor Brandon is going to bat an eye--and Sealy, with two game-winning shots on his résumé this year, isn't going to flinch.

Both rookie Wally Szczerbiak and backup guard Anthony Peeler have upped the caliber of their play down the stretch, and Joe Smith has proven to be an effective, if maddeningly inconsistent, rebounder and interior defender. Although he has yet to win a series, Saunders has been an effective, innovative coach during the Wolves' three previous trips to the playoffs. And finally, the team's sterling road record this season augurs well for the possibility of stealing one of the first two games in Portland.

Still, Minnesota is undoubtedly the underdog. While the Wolves' offense has indeed been marvelous, Portland has the league's best shooting percentage. And for all the excitement over Minnesota's 48-14 slate since their 7-13 start, the Blazers are a game better over the same period. Wallace, who has long been jealous of KG's fat contract, defends Garnett as well as anyone in the league, and Portland has enough depth and overall team speed to persevere against the Wolves' rapid ball movement. It will be crucial for Brandon, Sealy, and Peeler to hit their outside jump shots and take some of the pressure--physically and mentally--off KG.

But the real challenge will come at the other end of the court. Even at three-quarters of his game, Sabonis enjoys a decided edge over centers Dean Garrett (who has added stone hands to his slow reactions) and Rasho Nesterovic (whose declining confidence stands in inverse proportion to his dumb fouls and sclerotic moves toward the hoop). Smith, who was manhandled and singed by Duncan and David Robinson in last year's playoffs, simply isn't big enough to deal with Sabonis for more than a few minutes at a time. A better matchup for him would be power forward Brian Grant, perhaps the best player off Portland's deep bench. Minnesota must also be concerned about Szczerbiak, a dogged but untested rookie, matched up against the silky grace and veteran savvy of Pippen. (Expect Saunders to deploy Sam Mitchell and even KG at times on Pippen.) But if Szczerbiak and Smith can find ways to be effective and wild-card backup point guard Bobby Jackson delivers jolts of defensive intensity, the expected high-caliber consistency of Garnett, Brandon, Sealy may be enough to make the Blazers implode.

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