Playoffs?! – Upcoming Schedule Will Test Wolves’ Determination

Playoffs?!

I can’t remember when exactly I began affectionately referring to the Timberwolves as the “Pups”, but I do know that this started for me when the Wolves no longer were one of the youngest teams in the league.

A friend of mine took issue with that once, seizing the opportunity to let it be known that not only are they not young enough to be called “pups” anymore, but their opponents won’t be especially intimidated by the name. I jokingly replied that perhaps they are more deserving of being called “pups” than “wolves” with their inability to make a return to the playoffs. “They make the playoffs, they played like wolves,” was the thought. While this conversation took place last season, I completely believe it applies to the team’s current situation as the 2013-2014 regular season winds down. Quite frankly, lately I don’t feel like we’ve been watching a team that believes in their own ability to make the playoffs and hasn’t been putting up the kind of effort that could have them more in the mix than they currently are. In other words, they’re not playing like hungry wolves in a time that it’s crucial. The Wolves have gone every-other over their last six games and have been outscored in the first half in four straight. I guess I’m just wondering where’s the fire? Have too many players bought into the idea that anything at this point is too-little-too-late? All three of those losses came against Eastern Conference teams that are currently scratching and clawing to stay alive (New York), battling for playoff position (Toronto) or fighting to stay in the playoffs (Charlotte). I’m not saying any of those games are easy by any means, especially considering the Knicks have won six straight by double-digits, but those are the games a team desperate to make the playoffs needs to have. Currently sitting in 10th place in the conference with 17 games to play, Minnesota is four games behind Phoenix for ninth, 5.5 games behind Memphis for eighth and 6.5 games behind Dallas for seventh. As fans, we torture ourselves with the thought of: “There’s still hope.” Sleep is lost, tears are shed and fits are thrown as we live and die with every possession with that thought in mind. Luckily (if there is a “luckily”), with three of the next four games being played against the seventh, eighth and ninth-placed teams, the Wolves aren’t completely out of it. This classic film dialogue sums up Minnesota’s playoff odds kind of perfectly:

Wolves: What are my chances? NBA: *pause* Not good. Wolves: You mean not good, like, one-in-a-hundred? NBA: I’d say…more like one-out-of-a-million. Wolves: *long pause* So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance!

You’re damn right, Wolves fans! At Dallas, at Houston, versus Phoenix, at Memphis. That’s the opportunity that begins tonight. The four games will be played over six days, with the games at Houston and Memphis being pivotal back-to-backs. As reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nikola Pekovic, dealing with ankle soreness, will travel with the team for the games at Dallas and Houston, but is doubtful to take the court. There is no update for Ronny Turiaf’s return as of today either. Following an impressive first start on Sunday against the Kings, we can expect to see Gorgui Dieng continue to fill in for Pek – at least for now. While it was nice to see the big man denying all those shots and doing a better job of staying out of foul trouble against the Kings, I’m hoping Dieng will be able to improve on getting the ball in the Wolves’ hands following a block instead of looking to swat it as hard as he can. All three of Dieng’s first half blocks against the Kings ended up staying with Sacramento and resulted in buckets. This might not necessarily be something we will see change much as the year winds down, but it is something to keep an eye on. Speaking of eyes, are you still rolling yours at the thought of the Wolves having an outside chance of sneaking into the playoffs? Hopefully taking a closer look at the upcoming stretch of games will get you to stop being such a negative Norman.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19 – AT DALLAS (MIN leads series 2-1)

  • Dallas owns an impressive 22-10 record at home, but did lose to Minnesota when hosting them way back in November. Ah, November, when playoff hopes were as high as ever.
  • Nine of Dallas’ remaining 14 games will be played at home.
  • Dallas enters the game having won five of their last six, including wins against Portland, Indiana and Oklahoma City.
  • This game will be the second of eight consecutive home games for the Mavs. Not only are they hot coming into tonight’s game, but they won’t be playing an away game until April 3 thanks to this ridiculous stretch.
  • In their three meetings this season, Dallas has outscored Minnesota in the first half by an average of 4.3 points.
  • Minnesota has outscored Dallas in the second half by an average of 6.6 points.
  • Stop that man: While Monta Ellis has had more success against the Wolves this season, Dirk Nowitzki has been heating up lately and could be in for a big game. With averages of 22.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 3-pointers over the last three games, Nowitzki is gaining momentum at the right time for the Mavs.
  • What to look for: Upon looking back at the box scores, it was almost impossible not to notice the free throw and foul disparity. In their three meetings, Minnesota is 67-for-83 from the free throw line compared to Dallas’ 31-for-40. That’s right, more than twice as many attempts. In the second game alone Dallas was charged with 26 fouls to Minnesota’s nine.

THURSDAY, MARCH 20 – AT HOUSTON (HOU leads series 2-0)

  • The Rockets possess an even more impressive home record at 27-7 and haven’t lost in Houston since Memphis beat them by one on January 24.
  • Houston will play seven of their 15 remaining games at home.
  • Houston is currently third in the NBA in scoring (106.4 ppg) while Minnesota maintains the fourth-best ranking in that category (106.1 ppg).
  • This marks the third of four contests these two will play against each other this year. The final game of the season series will be played at Minnesota on April 11.
  • The Rockets have gotten off to great starts against the Wolves in the first half, averaging 11 points more than Minnesota.
  • Stop that man: Fox Houston reports that Howard is iffy to play tomorrow night with a left ankle sprain, which could open a window of opportunity for the Wolves. James Harden was absent from the first game between these two, although his presence didn’t seem to be missed. Harden has had some huge games recently, including a couple of 40+ scoring outbursts in the last 11 games, and could be in line for some extra shot attempts if Howard sits.
  • What to look for: Besides the status of Howard, it will be interesting to see how many 3-pointers the Rockets attempt. Houston went an impressive 17-for-31 against the Wolves in their first meeting and hit 11-of-27 in the second game. All five starters have scored in double-figures for the Rockets in both games and Houston was also able to overcome a 23-10 turnover deficit against Minnesota in their first meeting. C’mon, man!

SUNDAY, MARCH 23 – VS. PHOENIX (Series tied 1-1)

  • The Suns post a respectable 16-16 record on the road, including a win in Minnesota. The game at Minnesota kicks off a three game road trip for Phoenix.
  • Nine of Phoenix’s 15 games left will be played on the road.
  • Phoenix has outscored Minnesota by an average of four points in the first half.
  • The Wolves have outscored the Suns by an average of eight points in the second half.
  • Stop that man: While Goran Dragic hasn’t been putting up huge assist numbers recently, he still is averaging 19 points and four assists over his last five games. Back in their first meeting, Dragic went for 26 points, nine assists and 6 rebounds in 41 minutes and is capable of such a performance on any given night. Dragic was held in check for the second meeting, scoring 16 points before fouling out, which could have played a big role in Minnesota’s win.
  • What to look for: The second game between these two featured a Pek-less Wolves team rallying in the fourth quarter to pull out a nine point win. Phoenix out-rebounded the Wolves by 12 that night and amassed nine blocks in the game. It remains to be seen if Pek will be able to play by then, but I’m curious to see how those numbers will sway with Dieng getting more playing time. Phoenix’s 3-point shooting will be key in this game. The Suns shot 11-for-29 from behind the arc in their win over the Wolves; 3-for-15 in their loss. A combined 34 turnovers (PHO – 19; MIN – 15) between these two teams made for a sloppy game last time around, so we should all make a sacrifice to the basketball gods to ensure that doesn’t happen again. No one wants to see that.

MONDAY, MARCH 24 – AT MEMPHIS (Series tied 1-1)

  • Memphis is 20-14 at home this season and will be coming off back-to-back games against Miami and Indiana in their two games prior.
  • The Grizzlies and Wolves will still meet one more time in Minnesota on April 2.
  • Memphis is 7-3 in their last 10 at the time of this writing, the best record in the last 10 games of any of these teams being written about.
  • While Memphis is 25th in scoring (95.8 ppg), they are third in points allowed (94.6 ppg).
  • Seven of Memphis’ final 16 games will be played at home.
  • Stop that man: Zach Randolph has been excellent in his two games against the Wolves this year, averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds and 4.5 assists. The first game was played without Marc Gasol, but his return didn’t seem to slow Randolph down that much in the second meeting as Randolph still put up a double-double.
  • What to look for: What was interesting to me was that Gasol returned in the second game to face the Wolves without Pek, yet Minnesota still ended up +8 in rebounding. Dieng played 13 minutes that game, being held scoreless and accumulating a -14 spread while on the court. These two teams play close games regardless of injuries, however, the second game of a back-to-back may make things difficult for the Wolves in this one.

The best-case scenario for these games would obviously be 4-0, but that seems to be a bit too hopeful to me. A more realistic best-case scenario sees the Wolves pulling out wins against Dallas, Phoenix and Memphis. The Wolves are 4-11 on the second half of their back-to-backs, but a win against Memphis is essential to keeping their playoff hopes alive. With the majority of Phoenix and Memphis’ games on the road, and Dallas playing so many games at home, the Wolves are likely looking to the Suns and Grizzlies to start losing in order to climb back into the mix. Four games behind the Suns with a game against them can eliminate that to three games behind. Two wins in the remaining games against Memphis would drop their deficit to 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies. The odds are very slim, yes, but it really isn’t impossible to see them inching closer to the final playoff spot if, and this is a big and important “if”, these pups can channel their inner-wolves.

No Blues Tonight: Timberwolves 101-93 over the Grizzlies

Coming into Sunday night’s game the Timberwolves had dropped 11-straight to the Memphis Grizzlies. To make matters worse, they hadn’t won at Fed Ex Forum since January 2009– one full year before I began covering this team. Each time the Grizzlies were just a terrible matchup for the Timberwolves, especially with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the frontcourt. Yet, there would be no Gasol for the Grizzlies, giving the opportunity for the Timberwolves to break the streak.

Much in the same way the Grizzlies terrorized the Timberwolves with their frontcourt duo over the years, Minnesota used theirs to do the same to them in the first quarter. Kevin Love assisted Nikola Pekovic on his first basket and later on Love added a three to give them an early 7-6 lead. From there the Timberwolves used a 14-4 run to put them up 21-10 en route to a 28-17 lead after the first quarter.

The second quarter provided the Timberwolves’ bench to restore some faith in them as some of the starters took same rest. JJ Barea in particular needed to put together a strong performance. We all know Barea can give us either a fun performance or a frustrating one, and so far we’ve seen more of the latter, but Barea left his mark on the second quarter. Barea drained a few threes, but also made his impact felt as a distributor, notching a couple of assists.

Between Love’s strong performance on both ends, including some stingy interior defense on Zach Randolph, and Barea’s off-of-the-bench spark the Timberwolves carried a 10 point lead at the half.

The Grizzlies were able to cut the lead to single digits at the start of the third behind a pair of Mike Conley threes and a Randolph basket. Still, the Timberwolves were able to keep their heads above what became a quarter long run that featured Conley, but valuable contributions from players like Jon Leuer. For a team that had not beaten Memphis on their court in four years, a four-point lead could not have been comfortable to take into the fourth quarter. As an added disadvantage, the Timberwolves were going to have to do this without Kevin Martin, whose knee that had been bothering him for several games began to give him trouble again and had been sitting out since the second quarter.

Facing the tough task of closing out the Grizzlies out at home, the Timberwolves were going to need added support from their bench. So Dante Cunningham and Alexey Shved answered the call, as well as Pekovic in the paint and the Timberwolves were able to pad their lead. Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley had to leave the game early because of injury, leaving both teams a bit more short-handed than they would like nearing the end of the game.

Alas, the Grizzlies were unable to overcome the absences of Gasol and Conley and the Timberwolves exploited their advantage as they rolled to a 101-93 victory. Love and Barea helped down the stretch, but Pekovic’s ability to get to the line helped seal the game for the Timberwolves.

Love had 19 points at the half and  finished with 30 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Pekovic gave 19 points of his own, but his 7-8 mark from the line was crucial to the victory. Barea’s 15 points and five assists provided a much-needed spark off of the bench and the Timberwolves’ bench outscored the Grizzlies’ 31-30. Although he missed most of the fourth quarter, Conley finished with 28 points, five rebounds and three assists. Leuer and Bayless added 15 and 14 points off of the bench as well.

The lack of turnovers in this game was remarkable. The Timberwolves force a high amount of turnovers per game and the Grizzlies had forced a high amount in recent years, but each had five and two, respectively, at the half and finished with nine and 10. This was the fewest amount of turnovers committed since the November 22nd game against Brooklyn, but also limited the team’s chances for transition opportunities that they thrive off of. On the other hand, every time they did get out the Grizzlies also seemed more than comfortable with a track meet, so this wasn’t entirely a bad thing.

Such a lack of extra possessions placed an even greater importance on rebounding and both teams finished nearly even in total rebounds. Both teams instead found their second chance opportunities in the form of offensive rebounds. The Grizzlies also claimed a 50-38 advantage in the paint without Gasol and both teams excelled at drawing fouls, finishing with  over 20 free throw attempts at once. An added bonus, even with 45 free throw attempts, was the fact that it didn’t hurt the flow of the game like it tends to happen with higher amounts of whistles.

The Timberwolves will run it back tomorrow evening in Boston. No word yet on the availability of Martin.