For my money, this is the most interesting play-in round game (in either conference).
Two pretty good teams — each with an All-NBA level player — face off when the Los Angeles Clippers travel to Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves in the Western Conference 7/8 pay-in game (6:30 p.m., TNT). The winner advances to face the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, the loser will host the winner of the Spurs at Pelicans game in a win-or-go-home game for the No. 8 seed.
Los Angeles vs. Minnesota should be an interesting game. Here are three things to watch for.
How will Karl-Anthony Towns handle varied, aggressive Clippers’ defense?
Minnesota has the best player in this game in Karl-Anthony Towns, who had an All-NBA level season averaging 24.6 points and 9.8 rebounds a game while shooting 41% on 3-pointers. There is a maturity to his game now, and that calmness — along with an improved passing game — has him picking apart opposing defenses. He can score inside, outside, put the ball on the floor, whatever the defense gives him, he can take and turn into buckets.
The Clippers may be the best team to challenge Towns because it’s not going to be one look, it’s going to be something different every time down the floor. Straight big-man matchups with Ivica Zubac, a feisty smaller big who will get under Towns’ skin in Marcus Morris, quick doubles with Paul George and Robert Covington, and if the Timberwolves use a pick to try and get a matchup they want no team scram switches better behind the play than the Clippers. Los Angeles had a lot of long, high IQ defenders and they can execute what will be a clever game plan from Tyronn Lue (an underrated game coach).
This is the best Xs and Os matchup of the entire first round. How Towns adjusts to the Clippers’ defense — and if other guys such as Anthony Edwards or D'Angelo Russell can make them pay when they get the mismatch — will decide this game. It’s going to be fun to watch.
How good will the Clippers’ offense be with Paul George?
PG13 has looked good since returning from the elbow injury that sidelined him for more than half the season. In his five games since coming back he has averaged 22.6 points a game, is shooting 52.8% from 3 (on eight attempts a game), and is dishing out 6.8 assists a night.
George gives the Clippers what every team needs in the postseason: A guy who can just go get them a bucket. He is also a killer from the midrange, which is often the shot available in tight games, and the ability to drain that shot matters.
However, George has missed a lot of time this season and the ball sharing with Reggie Jackson in the clutch, the finding of shooters like Luke Kennard on the pass, is not smooth yet. It needs to be if the Clippers want to face Memphis in the first round.
Will the Clippers or Timberwolves get their 3-pointers to fall?
The Los Angeles Clippers hunt 3-points and shot 37.4% on them as a team this season (third-best in the NBA), while Minnesota allowed the fifth most 3-point attempts in the league.
No team took more 3s this season than the Timberwolves (41.8 attempts per game), but the Clippers were bottom 10 in the league in allowing 3s.
It sounds rather simplistic, but it’s going to be true in this game because both rely on it: Whichever team shoots better from 3 will win this game. The Clippers’ offense has better shooters and if their inside-out game works to get guys like Kennard, Norman Powell, Covington, and Batum clean looks, the Timberwolves are in trouble. Conversely, Minnesota averages more than eight 3-point attempts a game from Edwards, Malik Beasley, and Russell, if they get hot it’s Los Angeles that will be in trouble.