Minnesota's Play-In Tournament Butterfly Effect

Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Everything began to unravel in the second half of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ play-in game against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Wolves had the Lakers on the ropes after controlling the tempo and looking like the better team in much of the first three quarters. Darvin Ham sidelined D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley for most of the game because they weren’t hitting their shots and were creating holes on defense. The Wolves had a 11-point lead at halftime and looked like they would be able to close the Lakers out and claim the 7th seed.

Then out of nowhere Anthony Davis (allegedly) twisted his ankle, and proceeded to lay on the floor writhing in pain while covering most of the defensive paint with his body. Rudy Gobert decided to pass the ball out instead of trying to score over the (allegedly) injured Davis, and the Wolves proceeded to miss an open shot. Instead of calling a timeout to let their injured player off the court, the Lakers played on. AD continued to writhe on the floor in pain for what felt like five minutes while LA went on a reverse power play, and Minnesota bricked outside shots.

Davis’s bizarre and unconventional, albeit effective defensive tactic of laying in the lane completely threw the Wolves off and led to one of the most astounding and frustrating breakdowns in recent history. Without re-living too much more of the nightmare, I’ll summarize it by saying that Minnesota didn’t score for six minutes in the fourth quarter until Mike Conley hit three clutch free throws to send the game to overtime.

As you know, the Wolves lost, essentially sealing their postseason fate before their series started. They had an opportunity for a rematch of last year’s playoffs against the injury-depleted and distracted Memphis Grizzlies. Instead, they had to play the Denver Nuggets — the most prepared postseason team in the NBA.

Many people questioned Denver’s strength as a 1-seed because of a streak of ugly games toward the end of their season. However, now it appears more as if they were conserving energy for the postseason than struggling to win. The Nuggets entered their series against the Timberwolves wanting to prove to the NBA that they were no joke, and the Wolves were the victims of a surgical gentleman’s sweep. At the time it felt disappointing that Minnesota only won one game in the series. But after watching Denver them blow out the Phoenix Suns, many people’s favorite to win the West, in Game 6, it adds some new perspective to the Wolves series.

The Nuggets are really good. They’re not the questionable 1-seed that some thought they were. Similarly, the Lakers were not the aging team hanging on by a thread that they were at the beginning of the season. They are now a smart veteran team with two of the best players in the world and a handful of savvy role players who take turns heating up. Davis didn’t only eat Minnesota’s lunch, he also ate Memphis’s breakfast and the Golden State Warriors’ dinner. He’s been a dominant defender in LA’s playoff run. He has prevented everyone he’s faced from feeling comfortable in the lane, and not just because he can take up the entire paint when he’s laying down.

The Lakers led all teams in the playoffs in defensive rating at 106.5, largely due to Davis’s dominant play. Davis leads all players in the playoffs in average rebounds per game with 14.1, a whole rebound per game higher than runner-up Kevon Looney. He also leads all playoff teams in blocks per game, with an absurd 3.3. That’s significantly higher than runner up Joel Embiid, who averaged 2.8 per game. Fun fact, Anthony Edwards is tied with Jaren Jackson Jr. for fourth with 2.0 blocks per game. Without getting too off-topic, that’s ridiculous for a guard, and the Wolves are in good hands going into the future.

None of this excuses the offensive drought at the end of the play-in game; the Timberwolves should have beat the Lakers in the play-in tournament. But it makes it feel like less of a team-wide failure. Instead, it retrospectively feels more like Minnesota succumbed to LA’s two strongest weapons, defense and rebounding, which have won them two playoff series. As a result, the Wolves may not be as far away from a playoff run as we thought after Denver eliminated them.

It also makes you wonder what the Timberwolves could have done had they beaten the Lakers in the play-in. In that case, the current Western Conference finals matchup would have happened in the first round, because LA would have been the 8th seed. It’s possible that we could have seen two 1- vs. 8-seed upsets in the same year. It’s also possible that the Nuggets would have resoundingly defeated Los Angeles, like they have every other team in the playoffs this year, and stopped the Lakers hype train from ever fully leaving the station.

If the Wolves had been the 7th seed, perhaps they would have beaten the Grizzlies in the first round, getting their revenge for last year. They certainly would have had a better chance against them than the Nuggets. Perhaps they even could have figured enough out in that series that they would have gone on to take the Warriors to seven. Maybe they could have even won the series on shooting luck, as the Lakers somewhat did. Then they would be in the Western Conference Finals, ready for Denver to gentleman’s sweep them again, only this time in an alternate timeline.

Unfortunately, like every other team who exited the playoffs earlier than they wanted to this year, which is literally all of them aside from maybe the Atlanta Hawks, all we have to hold onto in the offseason is what ifs, if onlys, and we’ll get ‘em next times. We’ll have to wait until next year’s playoffs before the Wolves can escape the moniker of team that can’t make it out of the first round. A lot will happen between now and then.

The Wolves can still do a lot to improve their chances during the regular season. They need to figure out a couple go-to offensive plays so things don’t get so stuck in clutch situations. They also need to be engaged for all 48 minutes so that they can win more games against tanking teams and avoid the play-in altogether. If they can achieve a higher seed, it will be much easier for them to go into the first round with confidence against a lesser opponent.

Still, watching the two teams the Timberwolves lost to in the postseason square off in the Western Conference Finals makes Minnesota’s postseason woes feel less like a failure. Instead, it feels more like a learning opportunity, given they lost to the two best teams in the West. The Wolves were competitive in all but one of their games against the Nuggets, and they have enough talent to improve as a unit in the offseason. They’ll have the opportunity to get more experience playing together next year, something that three out of the four teams still in the playoffs have benefited greatly from.

There were many parts in the season that looked ugly, and a few parts of the season that made Tim Connelly look like a genius. Hopefully time and an offseason of practice together will heal Minnesota’s wounds. The lesson is that that’s how good they’ll need to be next year if they want to make a run to or beyond the Western Conference Finals.

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Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

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