As the Phoenix Suns and the Memphis Grizzlies wait for their first round opponents, we have three fascinating games to determine them. Each of these four teams have had a heck of a journey to get here, but now it comes down to execution.
(7) Minnesota Timberwolves vs (8) Los Angeles Clippers
Tale Of The Tape: The Wolves have been the 8th most efficient offense in the league this season. Led by Karl Anthony Towns (24.6 PPG 9.8 RPG 3.6 APG), they move the ball with precision and can shoot the three very well. They also attempt the most threes in the league. Being 13th in defensive efficiency is quite the improvement for coach Chris Finch, and this is a great final exam. The Clippers are a veteran laden, deep, and tough team. Their experience is an advantage here.
The Clippers have had a ton of injuries this season, but with superstar Paul George back they have a chance here to make a run. We can disregard their 24th ranked offense because of the injuries, but a constant has been their 8th ranked defense. Coach Tyronn Lue will certainly be throwing out all types of different defenses at Minnesota to limit Towns and growing star Anthony Edwards.
Key Matchup: The Clippers defending Karl Anthony Towns.
3 of the 4 matchups between these teams took place in November and the final one in January so it’s going to look a lot different now. One thing Coach Lue likes to do is throw out different looks against opposing offenses. He’s a tactician of the highest degree. To start off this game he attempts to throw the Wolves off with zone and gets a turnover.
A few possessions later, the Wolves get going as center Ivica Zubac falls asleep on KAT popping out for a 3. That can’t happen. Expect if Zubac is not effective early we see a switch heavy wing contingent from the Clippers. If the Clippers can get the Wolves tentative and meandering around the perimeter, this is their best chance. If the Wolves are swinging the ball around, it’s a tall task to stop their offense.
The Prediction: The one thing that should concern Minnesota is their defense in a game like this. The Clippers have a habit of playing great in the fourth quarter. Paul George and Reggie Jackson have both been willing ball movers and they have the shooting to space the floor. Will experience come into play here? Minnesota has had a great season, but I’ll go with the battle tested Clippers here.
(9) New Orleans Pelicans vs. (10) San Antonio Spurs
Tale Of The Tape: Its remarkable to think of where both of these teams came from. The Pelicans started the season 3-16. Zion Williamson hasn’t played at all this season with a foot injury, and no one knows what will happen going forward. The team itself made a trade for sharpshooting guard CJ McCollum and teaming him with Brandon Ingram has made the Pelicans a formidable foe. They’ve gotten contributions from guys like Herb Jones, and center Jonas Valanciunas. What a turnaround for them to get here.
The San Antonio Spurs probably weren’t even trying to make the Play-In. They traded guard Derrick White at the deadline and have continued to look to build towards their future. Guard Dejounte Murray (21.1 ppg 8.3 rpg 9.2 apg) has had an excellent season. They have their star going forward.
Key Matchup: Spurs defense vs CJ McCollum
The Spurs are middle of the pack in defense (ranked 16th) and at the point of attack will have to stop CJ or at least limit his effectiveness. He’s just a difficult player to key in on as he can get to his spots off the dribble and is crafty getting others involved. Here as it’s late in the shot clock on a scramble play he’s able to get in the lane for a floater.
On another possession he’s able to come off a curl to get free for a jumper. The ability to move off the ball is just as important as being on ball. CJ McCollum is as tough as they come.
The Prediction: It’s hard for me to see the Spurs win this game. Expect the Pelicans to get enough from CJ and Ingram on offense to win here. If the Spurs can win the battle of the boards they’ll be able to keep it close. Taking New Orleans in a comfortable double digit win.