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Boon or Bust

Landing the Dallas Mavericks as a playoff opponent instead of Shaq and the Lakers or Duncan and the Spurs is a karmic bouquet Kevin Garnett and the Wolves will gratefully accept. It's still doubtful that they can capitalize on the gift and get the franchise's first-ever post-season triumph. But at least there's a sliver of legitimate hope after a dank two months offensive sludge and pacifistic D.

The NBA is all about match-ups, both in terms of individuals and team styles. The personnel and personality of the Mavericks abet the Wolves' virtues and don't exploit Minnesota's weaknesses as ruthlessly as most of the league's other quality teams. Here are a few specific reasons why this series may not be a hopeless cause.

Like most ball clubs, the Wolves' offense and defense work in tandem, and are often either synergistic or cancerous; play at one end of the court can easily feed or starve momentum at the other. Since opponents began solving Minnesota's zone schemes midway through the season, the Wolves' defense is rarely a catalyst for the offense; much more frequently, it's a burst of points that energizes their defense. Fortunately, there is no D in Dallas. The Mavs are congenitally shoddy, indifferent defenders, owing to an overconfidence in their ability to outscore opponents. The Wolves beat them twice in four meetings this year (and were ahead by more than 20 points in the third quarter of another game) primarily because they sank 51 percent of their shots.

KG, Wally Szczerbiak, and (perhaps most of all) Chauncey Billups are the beneficiaries of the Mavs' defensive nonchalance. Billups' accuracy is much more acute when he has time to plant and gather himself before firing. He's also a streaky shooter who knows enough to push his luck when hot, especially from long-range. The Mavs learned this during the third quarter of their third meeting with the Wolves, when Billups torched them for 24 points in 12 minutes, propelling his team to victory on a night when Garnett was off attending a family funeral. Imbued with quick reflexes but lousy court vision, Billups' passing game also thrives when the defense isn't pressuring him. When the two teams met for the last time during the regular season, Dallas allowed Billups to rack up 17 assists.

You'd think Michael Finley, one of the Mavs' only quality defenders when he feels like it, would be a tough match-up for Wally Szczerbiak. But Wally buried 62.5 percent of his shots against Dallas this year en route to averaging more than 24 points per game. If Finley isn't primed to lock down Szczerbiak, we might see more of the same in the playoffs. And if Wally and Billups are going off, Dallas can't afford to double-team Garnett in the low block. Since there is no single defender on the Mavs who can effectively contain KG (he converted 55 percent of his shots against them this season), that's a third reliable option in a dynamic scoring attack. It all starts with Billups, whose confidence has been rightfully fragile the past month. If the Mavs give him room to breathe, the Wolves might just blow them away.

A second reason for optimism stems from the defensive job Sam Mitchell has done on Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs' go-to guy, over the past two games. Dirk doesn't like to get bumped, and out on the court Mitchell is all elbows and knees (exerted with a veteran's sly savvy). His whole plan is to try and deny Nowitzki the ball, or at least make him black and blue in the process. Dirk did go off for 34 points in their final meeting, but, in a grimacing display of grit and excellence, he had to work like hell for every one. His bum ankle will make it even easier for Sam to stick with him; and it's a safe bet that Mitchell will only get better at administering his subtle beatings now that the stakes are raised and the refs are more prone to pocket their whistles. Nowitzki will get his points, but he and the Mavs could pay an uncomfortably high premium.

Factor three working against Dallas is the often idiotic proclivity of Mavs' coach Don Nelson to juggle the lineup. Nellie likes to throw a bevy of different looks on the court, from a super-small lineup that has point guards Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel sharing the backcourt, to a triple towers approach featuring seven-footers Wang and LaFrenz vying with Nowitzki and Nash to see who can chuck up the most threes. Nelson might just have too much talent on hand for his own good. Like the Portland teams of recent years, Dallas has to worry about quality players being resentful of limited minutes and trying to seize the opportunity to do something special once they get playing time. Van Exel in particular is susceptible to this-a notoriously streaky shooter, he could gun the Mavs to victory or defeat almost single-handedly. And I'm not sure Nellie will recognize Van Exel's cold-shooting selfishness in time, should it come to, er, pass.

So much for the good news. On the debit side of the Wolves' ledger, Dallas is loaded with quality shooters who outscored Sacramento and every other NBA team this season, pumping in 105 points per game. They are deadly accurate from long-range, mid-range, and the free-throw line. A challenge for Wolves' coach Flip Saunders will be stopping Finley off the dribble (a job for either KG or Felipe Lopez), preventing Nash from burning them with three-pointers in transition, and stopping LaFrenz and Nowitzki from jacking threes in the half-court offense. On the ESPN website, analyst and former coach Dr. Jack Ramsey says he expects the Wolves to deploy a zone--a sure sign of senility. Saunders might be able to get away with some "32" schemes with Garnett out on the perimeter, where he and Joe Smith will often be roaming to stop the big dudes from bombing, but Dallas moves the ball too well and shoots too accurately for the match-up zone to be effective.

Despite the Wolves miserable playoff history, Saunders has shown himself to be adept at coming up with surprisingly effective new wrinkles during the post-season. After the final game of the regular season against Denver, Garnett revealed that the coach has been installing some new plays during the past couple of weeks. The Wolves will need them. Despite the advantageous match-ups, Dallas still possesses flat-out better talent on its roster than Minnesota. Hopefully, Saunders was blowing smoke when he declared that his team would reduce its three-point attempts and concentrate on getting to the basket in the playoffs. Dallas is flaccid on the perimeter but can put two stellar shot-blockers underneath (LaFrenz and Shaun Bradley, who could be the Mavs' secret weapon) to deter penetration and consistent low-post play.

Saunders also said that he expects both KG and Szczerbiak to have "big" playoff series. That too is a necessity to the Wolves' winning formula. The days when the Wolves could be a consistently productive passing team in the half-court offense disappeared when Terrell Brandon was injured in early February. Increasingly, even against Dallas, they must rely on their two primary scorers to generate points on quick shots and isolation plays. Their most viable low-post scoring threat, Gary Trent, is useful matching muscular desire with his Mavs' counterpart, Edward Najera, but will find his little turnaround jumper back in his face when he takes it against Bradley, LaFrenz, or even Wang. And if Saunders continues his unfortunate love affair with the scattershot shenanigans of Anthony Peeler, it will be a quick series (unless, of course, AP is actually hitting his shots).

Ultimately, this series will come down to the Wolves' psyche. It's no secret that Garnett, and to a lesser extent Szczerbiak, haven't proven they can elevate their play under extreme pressure. Given the match-ups, Saunders would be right to entrust his fate to his superstar and his most accurate shooter. But there is a monkey of past playoff futility on the Wolves' backs, and it grew in size as the team nonverbally bickered and under performed during the second-half of the season. If they don't beat Dallas this year, the likelihood is that this team is in for a massive shake-up, with Szczerbiak, among others, prime candidates for an escort out of town.

The Wolves have done nothing to convince me that they are ready and able to finally throw off that psychological weight--if anything, their second half performance increased the doubts. If everything breaks right in their favor, I can see the Wolves taking this series in four or five games. Having covered them on a regular basis for more than a decade, that's what my heart hopes for. But that's not what my head says. My head says, 'Prove to me you've got something inside that I haven't seen.' Until they do, Dallas in 3.

 

Britt Robson posts his Timberwolves column online at www.citypages.com every Monday during the NBA season--and maybe more frequently, if the mood strikes him.


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