The Minnesota Timberwolves have been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2021-22 NBA season, going from the sixth-worst record in the league a year ago to being on the cusp of making the playoffs for the first time since 2018. Although the Wolves are the higher seed in Tuesday's 7 vs. 8 Western Conference play-in game against the Los Angeles Clippers, that doesn't mean they'll walk all over L.A., which has also been a surprise team given the injuries they've experienced.
Under first-year head coach Chris Finch, the Timberwolves improved their defense, and made key changes on offense to get the most out of star player Karl-Anthony Towns. Minnesota also has weapons up and down the roster, from Anthony Edwards significant improvement and D'Angelo Russell's production on offense, to Jarred Vanderbilt being a stout, versatile defender. Minnesota's been one of the hottest teams since the All-Star break, and could be a dangerous team if it secures a playoff spot.
On the other side of this matchup are the Clippers, who have weathered through not having Kawhi Leonard for the entirety of this season, and were without Paul George for a significant chunk of it, too. But L.A. relied on its depth in their absence, as Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris stepped up on offense, and its eighth-ranked defense has not just kept them in most games this season, but won them contests on numerous occasions. In a typical season in which the Clippers were fully healthy, they wouldn't find themselves in the play-in round, as they'd be considered title contenders. But here we are, and while the Clippers might be confident in their ability to beat the Timberwolves, they can't look past them and expect to cruise to victory. Here's everything you need to know ahead of the Timberwolves-Clippers play-in game.
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(7) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (8) Los Angeles Clippers
- When: Tuesday, April 12 | 9:30 p.m. ET
- Where: Target Center -- Minneapolis, Minnesota
- TV: TNT | Live stream: TNT
- Odds: MIN -150; LAC +130; O/U 230.5 (via Caesars Sportsbook)
1. Will a healthier Clippers team deliver?
Paul George has returned from a three-and-a-half month absence, and Norman Powell is also back in the rotation after missing 22 straight games. While Kawhi Leonard won't be suiting up for this game, this is the healthiest the Clippers have been all season, and while they're the lower-seeded team here it wouldn't be surprising at all if they pull out a win.
Before George went down back in December, the Clippers owned the fifth-best record in the West, and George was looking like a legitimate MVP candidate. Though this team still missed the dominant two-way production of Leonard, who is still rehabbing from an ACL tear he suffered in last year's playoffs, George was keeping the Clippers afloat as they looked like a team that could finish with a top-six seed in the conference.
Now with George back, and Powell returning after trading for him at the deadline, the Clippers are in a great position to pull off a win on the road in this game. What's been perhaps one of the silver linings in George and Leonard's absence is the development of other guys on the team, like Reggie Jackson and Terance Mann.
Jackson has come up big on numerous occasions for the Clippers in the last three years, both in the regular season and playoffs, but he's shouldered a bulk of the scoring load in the absence of George and Leonard. Mann has continued his development as a pesky defender, and L.A. is allowing over two points fewer when the third-year guard's on the floor. He's become a consistent threat when he gets to the rim, as he's converting on 66 percent of his shots around the basket, which ranks in the 81st percentile among guards in the league.
George is going to get his numbers, but it's going to be key for guys like Jackson, Mann and Powell to step up against a high-powered offense Minnesota offense in this game. Speaking of which ...
2. Can Wolves' shining offense live up to the pressure?
The Timberwolves ended the regular season with the sixth-best offense in the league, and since the All-Star break they've been even better, ranking third in the NBA. That starts with the play of franchise star Karl-Anthony Towns, who has become a more versatile player this season. He's playing less out of the post and is out on the perimeter where he can either spot-up for a 3-pointer, take a few dribbles in for a mid-range jumper or drive to the rim and finish.
Towns' versatility creates a matchup issue for opposing teams, because bigger defenders often can't keep up with him when he's powering toward the rim, and smaller defenders will get bullied in the post. He's been doing this consistently all season, and in his first fully-healthy season since 2019, he's returned to All-Star form for the Wolves. Now we'll have to see if Towns can take advantage of defenders like Ivica Zubac, Isaiah Hartenstein and Nicolas Batum when it matters most.
In addition to Towns delivering under the brightest lights, we'll also have to see how Anthony Edwards performs in what will be the most pressure-fueled game of his pro career. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick has become a more efficient scorer, especially from deep, jumping from a 32.9 percent shooter from long range to 36 percent this season. He's become a consistent 20-point-a-night scorer, capable of putting points on the board at all three levels.
But there have been games where Edwards won't be as aggressive as Minnesota needs him to be, and that can't happen in this game. In order for the Wolves to win, it'll need the version of Edwards who wasn't afraid to take any shot in his 49-point performance, and not the player who has a tendency to look off scoring opportunities.
3. The Patrick Beverley of it all
This is where the game will be the most entertaining. Beverley will face the team that traded him back in 2021, and even more than that he has the ability to really swing this game for the Timberwolves. Beverley lives to be a pest on defense, and not just by locking guards up, but by trying to get in opposing players' heads. He's going to try and bother L.A. every chance he gets, whether that's overselling a foul call and getting the crowd hyped up, or jawing with Clippers players to disrupt their game. But he's more than just a pest. Beverley can be a spot-up threat for the Wolves, and if his shot is falling it only emboldens him more to be more aggressive and annoying on defense.
However, the Clippers know first-hand how Beverley tries to take opposing teams out of their game. There's a chance Beverley's antics may not bother L.A. at all, which could neutralize his impact on the game. We've also seen Beverley played off the court in specific matchups -- think last year's playoffs against Luka Doncic, for example. It wouldn't be surprising to see George try and get switched onto Beverley and take advantage of the size mismatch. If that happens, Minnesota may have to choose wisely how it uses Beverley in this game.
This game should be entertaining, and with George back for the Clippers they should have a real good shot at winning this game. But the Timberwolves have really turned a corner since the All-Star break, and I expect Towns to have a big night against Zubac and Hartenstein. Pick: Timberwolves -3