There were no let ups and no let downs, just nine rugged, regular season-ending wins by an average margin of more than 12 points, enabling the Timberwolves to fend off 11 straight victories by the San Antonio Spurs to claim both the Midwest Division title and the top seed in the brutally competitive Western Conference.
Two weeks ago, when I published my last Hang Time column castigating the Wolves for the malaise, fatigue, and dysfunction they'd exhibited through most of March, the team's veteran stars (Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell, and Sam Cassell) were already girding themselves for this gutsy stretch run. Along the way, Wally Szczerbiak found his shooting stroke to go with his judicious shot selection and earnest defensive play, and Michael Olowokandi made medical history by undergoing a successful brain-heart transplant that transformed him into the Wolves' most valuable performer off the bench.
But the relentless Spurs ensured that the Wolves had no margin for error straight through to the finish line. Losing last night's regular season finale against the Memphis Grizzlies would have cast the Wolves into a far more grueling playoff gauntlet than the relatively rosy scenario that now exists. A Memphis win would have dropped Minnesota to the third seed and compelled them to play the sixth-seeded Grizzlies in the first round. Despite their recent stumbles, Memphis is a deep, obedient, well-coached team whose 22-game improvement (from 28 to 50 wins) stands to make their first-ever playoff appearance a happy-go-lucky experience. By contrast, the entire Wolves franchise has been psychologically disfigured by an unprecedented seven-straight first-round playoff defeats, and would feel the vise tighten if they got behind in the series. And if Minnesota had gotten past the Grizzlies, as a third seed they would have likely faced the talent-laden Lakers in the second round, followed by a probable matchup with the dreaded Spurs in which San Antonio would have held the home court advantage.
Instead, the Wolves essentially staked their claim to the top seed before halftime in last night's tilt, demolishing Memphis with a 22-2 run in the second quarter. Consequently, they will enjoy what figures to be a less stressful opening series with the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets, beginning Sunday. If successful, they will move on to play either Sacramento or Dallas--two teams that can't defend or rebound, the two most important equations in playoff advancement--in the second round, followed by a confrontation with the survivor of what should be an exhausting Spurs-Lakers series, in which Minnesota would own the home court advantage.
Given their woeful past playoff performances, it would be foolhardy for the Wolves to take Denver lightly. Nevertheless, the basketball gods cut Minnesota a break with this pairing. Of the other teams still in the hunt for the eighth seed earlier this month, Portland's long, staunch interior defenders (Theo Ratliff, Zach Randolph, and Darius Miles) denied penetration and put-backs en route to two convincing victories over Minnesota late in the season (and three out of four overall), and Jerry Sloan's exacting back-door cuts, crisp ball movement, and dribble penetration propelled Utah to a couple of wins in the Wolves' four meetings with the Jazz. Meanwhile, Minnesota vanquished the Nuggets three times this season, and suffered their only loss playing in Denver's thin air the night after an emotionally taxing win against the Spurs that, as it turned out, earned them the division crown.
The Nuggets have increasingly relied upon their rookie star, Carmelo Anthony, to ignite an offense that ranked fifth in points scored in the NBA this season. Anthony rightfully prides himself on elevating his game in the clutch, having spurred Denver's successful playoff drive a year after leading Syracuse to an NCAA championship as a college freshman. But compared to the NBA's other marquee rookie, LeBron James, Anthony is less adept at involving his teammates and more prone to forcing the action himself at crunch time, even when opponents are defending him successfully.
A major factor in the Wolves' dominance of Denver this season, and a potential trump card in the playoffs, is the yeoman defensive job Trenton Hassell has performed on 'Melo, who shot no better than 40 percent in any of the four games, and just 31 percent overall. Expect Hassell to get 30 minutes per night fighting through screens and chasing Anthony from the baseline to beyond the three-point arc, where 'Melo was just 3-for-12 from the field. Coach Flip Saunders will also deploy Latrell Sprewell, some zone traps, and maybe even give Wally Szczerbiak a chance to sustain his newfound defensive intensity.
While stopping Anthony has to be the top priority of the Wolves' defense, Minnesota is actually more vulnerable to the Nuggets' double point-guard backcourt of Andre Miller and mighty mite Earl Boykins. Just 5'5" and blessed with jitterbug quickness, Boykins specializes in pushing the tempo through dribble penetration (where he often pulls up for short jumpers) and generating transition baskets off of defensive steals. Normally, the Wolves would counter with their quickest player, Troy Hudson, but T-Hud is undergoing ankle surgery later this week and is out for the year.
Where Boykins is a catalyst and disrupter, Miller is a steady playmaker who compensates for his lack of three-point range with smart passes and some pretty fair dribble penetration. If the Wolves' Ervin Johnson and Michael Olowokandi come out to challenge the drives to the hoop, the Nuggets have quick big men such as Marcus Camby and the single-named Nene who can sneak in for layups and put-backs from offensive rebounds. And if Saunders elects to pack the paint with a tight interior zone, the Nuggets can deploy former Gopher Voshon Lenard, an underrated all-around player and reliable long-range shooter.
Denver's best hope is to create transition baskets by forcing Minnesota turnovers, and, perhaps more importantly, getting Hassell and point guard Sam Cassell into foul trouble. But the nature of playoff basketball--which favors half-court offensive sets and finds refs tending to ease up on their whistles--works against the Nuggets. Denver is an offensive-minded ballclub that went 30-10 when they scored more than 100 points, but just 13-29 when they scored less. But with a second unit of Olowokandi, Szczerbiak, Hoiberg, and Madsen providing greater depth to an already tenacious Wolves defense, Minnesota never yielded more than 90 points in their last nine regular-season games, and has limited opponents' field goal percentage to 41 or less over the past 14 contests.
When the Wolves are on offense, Denver has had no answer for KG, who has posted his usual stellar numbers (25 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists per game) against the Nuggets, but with a greater preponderance of his points coming from the free throw line, where he has averaged nearly eight attempts per game. Fewer whistles from the refs may help Camby and Nene here, and Denver did bother KG with more physical play in their lone victory over the Wolves, but that was the night after Garnett was banged around by San Antonio. With plenty of off-days, fatigue will be less of a factor on both KG and Cassell (who fouled out during the loss to the Nuggets and is more vital, and vulnerable, in the wake of Hudson's injury).
Of the Wolves' two bread-and-butter offensive sets, I'd set KG up in the low post more often than I'd have Garnett and Cassell work the high-post pick and roll. Let Garnett abuse Camby and Nene for a while and compel the double-teams--then he can start spreading the ball around the perimeter for open looks by Cassell, Spree, and eventually Wally. I'd feed Kandi, who still shoots way too often, only as a last resort, and encourage Hassell to stick that open jumper he's frequently given early in the game. And until he proves otherwise, I'd trust emergency backup point guard Darrick Martin to handle the pressure. Garnett shouldn't spend his energy bringing the ball up too many times.
In summation, the keys to this series are frustrating Anthony and containing Boykins (and to a lesser extent Miller) when Minnesota is on defense, and taking care of the ball and operating with clinical efficiency and a killer instinct on offense. There's ample reason to believe these things will happen, and that the Wolves will be able to have their way with Denver. By now it's obvious that Cassell and Sprewell crave the pressure of big games, that Kandi and Wally have settled into invaluable roles that emphasize their strengths, and that Hassell, Hoiberg, and Madsen will continue to be crucial enablers, especially on defense.
A Wolves sweep is not outside the realm of possibility. More likely, Anthony and/or Boykins will rise to the occasion at least once in Denver, and the lack of depth at point guard and Kandi's old habits of shooting too much and contesting penetration too aggressively will cause some anxious moments that the Big Three may or may not be able to rescue. The Wolves in five or six, probably five.
P.S. I'll be providing a thumbnail analysis of the other first-round series before they begin, and will post my reactions to each Wolves playoff game sometime during the day after it occurs. Check this space for updates, and thanks for reading.
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