Ready or Not
As this edition of City Pages heads to press, there is no way of knowing where the Wolves will be or who they will play to open the playoffs this weekend. Depending on the outcome of a handful of games remaining in the regular season, potential scenarios range from Minnesota compiling the best record in franchise history and earning their first-ever home-court advantage for a playoff series, to dropping down to a sixth seed and having to travel to Dallas or San Antonio after losing six of their final ten contests. Plus there's still the chance--albeit less certain after last Sunday's games--that their opponent will be the three-time defending world champion Lakers. Rather than indulge in potentially pointless speculation, it might be helpful to consider how the Wolves arrived at this point of uncertainty and what, if anything, it portends for the playoffs. Because one of the few things that seems certain is that this upcoming series will have a profound impact on whether the franchise can retain and satisfy superstar Kevin Garnett and generate momentum for the future.
Six weeks ago, the Wolves had steamrolled their way to twelve wins in thirteen February games and were the talk of the NBA. Although Kobe Bryant had gone off for a string of 40-point games, Garnett was named the league's player of the month, while Saunders took coach-of-the-month honors. For the past five years, KG's versatility and Saunders's tactical guile have been the Wolves' most potent weapons, and both were operating at peak efficiency.
But since then, Minnesota has been distressingly mediocre, compiling an 11-10 record since the first of March. A dysfunctional Trailblazers team has tried to hand the Wolves home-court advantage, but to no avail. KG and Saunders aren't getting along as well, there's grumbling in the locker room, and point guard Troy Hudson's ability to withstand playoff pressure is an open question.
After a win against the Clippers Friday night, Saunders noted that his club had been outscored when Garnett sat against both Seattle and the Clippers, and ventured that he might have to play KG nearly all 48 minutes during playoff games.
Informed of this in the locker room, Garnett said that he'd discuss that with Flip later. At that point, an out-of-town writer lobbed a softball question, asking KG what Saunders had done to help the team be so successful this year. Garnett replied that it is important for the team to be at ease, and that sometimes "we have to grab him by the coattails and chill him out. That could be old age," he added, trying to lighten the tone. "Flip's a good coach. But sometimes he just has to let us flow. We'll be all right."
Will they? It is difficult to imagine the Wolves advancing in the playoffs if their opponent is Dallas, San Antonio, or the Lakers. Minnesota's perimeter defense and offensive composure remain suspect. Garnett's most notable improvements this season--an ability to channel his emotions and step up his play in crunch time--should continue in the playoffs, but he needs more help than the foul-prone Smith and the newly tentative Nesterovic have been providing on the front line, especially against Shaq and the Lakers.
Fortunately, the Wolves' most advantageous matchup would be against their most likely foe, the Portland Trailblazers. Portland's dirty secret is that they don't play particularly well down near the basket at either end of the court. Of their big men, Rasheed Wallace has increasingly strayed to the outside as his career has evolved, and the already slow Arvydas Sabonis and Dale Davis have seen age and years of pounding further retard their quickness. Undersized, energetic players like Marc Jackson and Gary Trent have both enjoyed success in the low post against Portland. And on offense, the Blazers frequently choose to live or die by the three-pointer.
The key to a Portland-Minnesota series could well be the matchups at point guard. Commentators who don't follow the Wolves very closely praise Hudson for evolving from a scorer off the bench in Orlando last year to more of a floor general at the point for Minnesota. But Hudson has mental and physical endurance problems that were camouflaged by KG's improved ball-handling and passing skills this year. Hudson's shooting accuracy drops from 48 percent in the first quarter to 38 percent in the fourth. His assist-per-game total plummeted from 9.2 in February to 4.5 in March (Garnett's APG's during the same period were 5.8 and 6.4, respectively), and while he has bumped it back up to 6.7 in April, Garnett's total is 8.0. Hudson, who began his pro career with an extended stint in the minor-league CBA, has more confidence in his jumper than his passing or his defense, but it's in the latter two areas that the Wolves need him most. Will he cope with the pressure or succumb to it like he did under less trying circumstances against Seattle? Expect the Wolves to utilize back-up point guard Rod Stickland as often as possible, but the creaky, 36-year-old Strickland has logged only three games since being sidelined with a nagging groin injury.
The caliber of point-guard play for the Trailblazers will be even more of an X-factor if the Wolves draw Portland in the first round. Despite the presence of three natural points on their roster, the Blazers thrived only after flipping the keys to their offense over to veteran forward Scottie Pippen, owner of six world championship rings. When healthy, he is a disruptively long and agile perimeter defender, who is also smart enough to recognize and dissect weaknesses in the Wolves' D. But he has logged scant playing time since undergoing knee surgery in mid-March. If it falls to pint-sized Damon Stoudemire or journeyman Jeff McInness to run the show, the Blazers are more apt to bomb away from long range.
If Pippen can will himself into mid-season form, or if the Blazers are on target with their treys, Portland can win this series. But if the Blazers and the Wolves do indeed square off, and Minnesota hasn't squandered its chance to secure home court advantage, I'm guessing that KG's magical MVP season has the capacity to generate a franchise-first adrenaline high. The Wolves in six, followed by obliteration at the hands of San Antonio in the second round.
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