Eight Questions for Round Two
Q: Since eliminating Denver Friday night, why have the Wolves players talked almost gleefully about engaging Sacramento in a fast-paced, up-and-down series?
A: I don't know, but Minnesota should be careful what it wishes for. The Kings transition offense has been among the most potent in the NBA for at least the past four or five years. And in holding the run-and-gun Dallas Mavericks below 40 percent from the field during their five-game, first-round series triumph, Sacramento proved it can hustle back and effectively defend against an opponent's quick-strike capability.
Q: So the Wolves shouldn't run or otherwise push the pace?
A: A better way to say it is they should be aggressive in taking whatever scoring opportunities are easily available, but smart in knowing when to pull back and regroup. Minnesota figures to enjoy an advantage in rebounding, particularly on the defensive glass, so there'll be some chances to deploy the fast break. But if and when the Kings recover in time, the Wolves should be patient and settle into their crisp half-court passing attack. That's something they've gotten away from in the past month--their assist-to-turnover ratio has significantly declined. If they continue to prematurely jack up shots and move the ball slowly and sloppily, their chances of winning the series are severely diminished. But if they swing the ball and make the extra pass, they'll get a lot of open looks because the Kings simply aren't that quick and athletic on the defensive end.
Q: What is the single most compelling reason why the Wolves should win this series?
A: Sacramento doesn't have anyone who can match up effectively with Kevin Garnett. Even when both of his legs were strong, Chris Webber had trouble containing KG, and injuries have significantly limited C-Webb's mobility this season, especially on defense. Neither Vlade Divac nor Brad Miller is even remotely quick enough to hang with KG. Sacramento's best bet might be rookie Darius Songaila, who's long and sturdy and has six fouls to give--don't be surprised if bad blood develops between Songaila and Garnett during the series.
The Kings will probably try to take away the Wolves' high-post pick-and-roll by using defensive specialist Doug Christie to guard Sam Cassell. Minnesota should respond by running most of their offense through KG, varying where he sets up between the high and low post. If the Kings don't double down on Garnett, he can draw plenty of fouls going strong to the hoop. When the double-team does come, most likely from the person ostensibly guarding Trenton Hassell, KG will rack up a plethora of assists feeding the perimeter and the wings. Add in the monster rebounding totals Garnett usually compiles against the Kings and you can anticipate KG going off for at least one or two triple-doubles during this series. The first quarters will be crucial, because in big games KG's adrenaline often screws up his shooting rhythm early in the proceedings. A hot hand from Cassell or Sprewell out of the gate--or shrewd ball movement that creates easy buckets for the role players--will probably be necessary to take up the slack.
Q: What is the single most compelling reason why the Kings should win this series?
A: While this is without question the best Wolves' defense in franchise history, their personnel doesn't match up well with Sacramento's multi-faceted arsenal. Ervin Johnson is a splendidly savvy and staunch low-post defender, but is far less effective against centers like Divac and Miller, who can step out and hit short-to-midrange jumpers. Even in the low post, Divac is perhaps the only pivot man with more guile than EJ, and if he gets the better of their slow-motion chess match it will compound Johnson's frustration and inefficiency.
Johnson is normally Cassell's safety blanket on defense, and if EJ is too preoccupied or otherwise unavailable to bail Sammy out, the Wolves' D can break down in a hurry. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Cassell is too small and slow to guard Christie, meaning he'll be matched up with Mike Bibby, who has earned his reputation as the Kings' most explosive offensive force in the playoffs, especially at crunch time. We haven't even mentioned Peja Stojakovic, the NBA's second-leading scorer. While the dogged D of Trenton Hassell will cut into Peja's point total, Hassell's forte is clamping down on opponents who can create their own shot off the dribble. When the Kings run Stojakovic around a pick or two, he's so quick and accurate in a catch-and-shoot rhythm that Hassell won't be able to shut him down as completely as he did Denver's Carmelo Anthony.
The Kings excel at setting both of their big men up on either side of the high post and who then feed their guards on pick-and-rolls and back-door cuts to the hoop. Less capable and competent offenses have made backup center Michael Olowokandi dizzy, and the Wolves would be wise to consider any contribution from Kandi as a bonus in this series, if only because there seems to be an inverse ratio between the quality of his performance and the level of expectation placed upon him. It's possible that Mark Madsen will get more minutes at center than either EJ or Kandi because he's quicker than one and smarter than the other, and you can't be slow on your feet or between your ears when you play Sacramento.
Wolves coach Flip Saunders may also return to the defensive wrinkle he deployed at the end of the Denver series, benching Cassell on occasion in favor of a three-guard lineup of Hassell, Sprewell, and Fred Hoiberg. Finally, the Wolves have the league's most polished and extensive array of matchup zone schemes to throw at the Kings. But, like the Wolves, Sacramento is intelligent enough to probe for that one defensive weakness and then exploit it relentlessly.
Q: Who's on the hot seat?
A: Cassell and Webber. Both are proud, extraordinarily gifted offensive players who are integral to their teams' respective identities. Both have a tendency to hog the ball enough to discourage movement by their teammates and thus retard their teams' offensive rhythm. And both are in danger of being so blatantly torched on defense in this series that it will curtail their time on the court. Whichever player rises to the challenge--either by elevating or wisely circumscribing their game for the overall good of the team--will provide an enormous boost to his ballclub.
Q: Which players are prime candidates to become unsung heroes?
A: Songalia will be invaluable if he can deter and frustrate KG even for short stretches. If the Wolves concentrate too much on Bibby and Peja, Christie is capable of replicating the sort of gloriously versatile performance that captured Game One for the Kings in the Dallas series. And watch out for Anthony Peeler, the ex-Timberwolf who was much maligned during his tenure here, but who is a smart, underrated defender and the NBA's most accurate three-point shooter this season. Wolves fans are well aware that Peeler's shot has always run hot and cold: The bad news is that he was cold throughout the first round against the Mavs.
On the Wolves' roster, Madsen is the type of dynamo that can ignite the crowd with his hustle and dishearten opponents by drawing charging fouls, boxing out for rebounds, converting putbacks, and scrambling after loose balls. Hoiberg's defense, ball-handling, and long-range shooting make him eminently capable of playing 20 to 30 minutes per game, especially if Cassell falters. And one never knows if and when the Ouija board in Kandi's brain will reconnect with the life force and transform the zombie we saw in the Denver series.
But my prime candidate for a breakout has been unsung primarily due to his deference for much of the season--Latrell Sprewell, the third wheel in the Big Three. I don't think it's a coincidence that Round One against the Nuggets constituted Spree's most consistent and versatile five-game stretch thus far this year. He's primed for this series, and if he can maintain his defensive intensity and mix in a few more drives to go with his three-pointers on the other end of the court, he'll take some of the heavy burden currently weighing on both Cassell and KG.
Q: Which team benefits most from the "intangibles"?
A: Sacramento. Both the Wolves and the Kings are missing key personnel, and both have won on the other's home court. (Indeed, two of the Kings' seven home losses were to Minnesota.) The major difference here is that, compared to their respective situations two weeks ago, the Kings have reason to be energized; the Wolves have reason to be satisfied.
Going into the first round, the Wolves were riding the momentum of capturing the top seed, while the Kings were a club in obvious disarray. Both vanquished their opponent in five games, but Sacramento's advance came at the expense of the best lower-seeded team in the entire postseason, while the Wolves had some aspects of their play exposed in a tougher-than-imagined matchup with Denver. The Nuggets took 65 more shots than the Wolves over the last three games and effectively throttled Cassell for about half of Round One. That Minnesota gutted out Game Four and repelled huge Denver comebacks in Games One and Five is good for their confidence, and getting the monkey of unremitting playoff failure off their backs is obviously a positive note. But Sacramento reversed its free-fall in more dramatic fashion, winning both shoot-outs and games that didn't get out of the 80s. Besides, when the stellar, last-second defense of notorious matador Peja Stojakovic gets you three fat wins, you start thinking the gods are on your side.
Q: Who is going to win the series?
A: Damned if I know. I don't see how anyone could have a reliable fix on how the dozens of variables just mentioned will play out. I understand that predictions are fun to read and there's no point in suddenly ducking them now just because of a little uncertainty. But I won't be smug if I nail the result or chastened if I'm way off.
That said, I think this will be a dramatic series with at least one or two major shifts in momentum. A number of players (with Cassell, Webber, and Brad Miller the most likely candidates) will score 25 to 30 points one game and single-digits the next. The Wolves will be blown out at least once. And Bibby will present the most enduring matchup problem.
But the Timberwolves' defense is a significant upgrade over what Sacramento saw in Dallas, and Minnesota will remember the principles of ball movement on offense enough to wear down the Kings at least once or twice. KG is primed for a huge series--he'll lead both teams in rebounds and assists. That, combined with his new MVP award, will cement his status as a permanent superstar. Sprewell and Madsen will make memorable contributions. The Wolves will dominate the boards and have the edge at the free-throw line. Timberwolves in six or seven, probably six.
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