5. Ramon Sessions vs. Ty Lawson
Down the stretch, Sessions’ play dropped off a bit. Over the Lakers’ last 7 games, he still posted solid averages of 10.7 points per game on 41.4% shooting with 4 assists per game. However, during that span, he shot 40% or lower in four of those contests. Sessions will have to step up his offensive production as well as his ability to distribute the ball effectively to the three stars on that team. Lawson, on the other hand, has been consistent all year long, leading the team in scoring with 16.4 points a game while shooting an extremely efficient 48.8% from the floor. Lawson is going to want to push the ball up the court and try to influence the pace of play in the Nuggets’ favor. It will be Sessions’ job to slow it down; although he alone is certainly capable of running with Lawson, the rest of his team does not operate that way. This may not be the most important matchup of this series (as you will see below), but the pace of play will be crucial in this series and it begins with these two.
4. Tim Duncan vs. Al Jefferson
The Jazz have little chance at pulling off an upset here, but if it’s going to happen, Jefferson is going to have to carry the load. With San Antonio ranking 2nd in the league in scoring and Utah 4th, while both teams are in the lower half of the league in opponents’ scoring, offense will decide this series. Jefferson represents Utah’s most consistent scoring threat and thus their most important piece if they want to win this offensively loaded series. In his four games against the Spurs this season, Jefferson put up 21, 20, 19, and 12 points respectively and the Jazz went 1-3 in those games. Clearly, for these Jazz to have any chance at pulling a Memphis-sized upset in these series, Jefferson is going to have to produce more than what he has given Utah in their previous games against the Spurs this year.
3. Kobe Bryant vs. Arron Afflalo
Bryant struggled in his three games against the Nuggets this year, shooting only 27.5% from the floor. OK, that’s a small sample size, but how about last year? He was a little bit better, but still Bryant only managed to convert on 39.2% of his field goal attempts. This is no coincidence; Arron Afflalo clearly gives Kobe problems. Surely, George Karl will turn to other players to help out on Kobe, namely Corey Brewer, but Afflalo figures to be crucial in defending Bryant. Offensively, Afflalo really turned a corner in April. During that span, he has put up 18.7 points a game, while shooting 52.1% from the field and 44.9% from beyond the arch. On both ends of the floor, this has the makings of a great matchup, which will certainly have a large bearing on the outcome of the series.
2. Shawn Marion vs. Kevin Durant
Key in the Mavericks’ 2011 run to the Finals was Marion’s defense on any opposing player that Coach Rick Carlisle assigned him. In the Western Conference Finals against these same Thunder, Durant averaged 28 points a game on 42.9% shooting. Marion, not known for his offensive skills, put up 18 and 26 in games 3 and 5, respectively. If Dallas wants to make a run at upsetting the Thunder, Marion is going to have to disrupt Durant during key stretches like he did last postseason. Moreover, with Tyson Chandler gone Marion will be the one spearheading this defensive attack.
1. Blake Griffin vs. Zach Randolph
I know that Zach Randolph has not played like the 2011 version of Z-Bo as of late. And I know Griffin isn’t the most important player in determining the outcome for his team, but I still see this as the most crucial matchup in what is the most evenly matched series out West. The Grizzlies have slowly been working Randolph back into the rotation, which can partly explain why he hasn’t reached 20 points in a game since March 16. But the fact of the matter is that if Memphis wants to make a deep run, they need the Randolph of old to show up. Griffin, not the most adept defender in the league, might be a good place to start. Defensively, you know that Randolph and the rest of the Grizzlies are not going to allow Griffin to simply jump over them; they will gladly send him to the line before allowing him easy buckets. If Memphis’ offense is sputtering at any point, don’t be surprised if you see them throw the ball down low to Randolph to get them going. Only if he shows up like he did last season can the Grizzlies make a deep run.
For some teams it’s time to start thinking about the 2012-2013 season. Surely the Bobcats, Wizards, and Hornets, to name a few, have been looking ahead to next year for several months. And then there are teams that have slowly begun to realize that they are going to miss the playoffs.
But there is one team in the league that went from dreaming of the playoffs to planning for next year in a matter of minutes: the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The second that Ricky Rubio’s knee buckled against the Lakers on March 9th, all the Wolves’ hopes of reaching the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-2004 season vanished. The momentum the team had been building all year suddenly crumbled to nothingness and the team’s 4-14 record since that game points to just how devastating the injury truly was.
So the question now must be asked: what one thing do the Wolves have to do to make the playoffs next year? Pray that Rubio returns to form after rehabbing his knee? Ensure that Nikola Pekovic continues to improve as a reliable offensive contributor? Develop Wesley Johnson’s confidence and scoring ability? A full training camp together for this young team could certainly do wonders with a teacher like Rick Adelman.
Obviously, all of these would be huge for development of this franchise. However, the story of how the Minnesota Timberwolves can become a contender begins and ends with Al Jefferson. That’s right, if the Wolves want to be a serious contender for years to come, and not just a threat to make the playoffs, then they need the Jazz to make the playoffs this year.
Because of the Al Jefferson trade from two years ago, the Wolves own Utah’s first round pick in this year’s draft, so long as it’s not a lottery pick. Now throw in the fact that Minnesota’s own first-round pick is on it’s way to New Orleans and how difficult it is to lure top free agents to the Twin Cities and you see just how important this is for the Wolves.
The Jazz making the playoffs, and thus surrendering their first round pick, represents Minnesota’s best chance for improving this offseason.
Just imagine who would be available to the Wolves if they had the 16th pick in this year’s draft. Austin Rivers, Terrence Ross, Doron Lamb, and John Jenkins all come to mind as players that could upgrade the Wolves at their biggest need, shooting guard.
Minnesota desperately needs another player who can spread the floor by knocking down 3s and get his own shot from time to time. A scoring wing man would be the perfect complement to the inside scoring of Kevin Love and Pekovic and the play-making ability of Rubio.
And what if the Jazz don’t make the playoffs and the Wolves are left without a first-round pick? Well, they are then looking at a future similar to their Western Conference foes, the Houston Rockets.
Ever since the 2003-2004 season, the Rockets have been battling to make the playoffs year after year. Unable to attract a big time free agent or land a high lottery pick, the Rockets haven’t been able to make the move from average team to contender.
Thus, the Wolves have this one chance to break free from mediocrity. In a year where the draft class is considered to be the deepest it has been in years, where the No. 20 pick in this year’s draft is akin to having the No. 10 pick any other year, the Wolves have a chance to make that leap. Surely a rookie won’t elevate them to championship contenders next season. But several years down the road, if all the players, including this fictional rookie, develop correctly, the Wolves have a chance to build around the best power forward in the league, Love, and one of the most promising young players, Rubio.
There in lies the hope for the Timberwolves franchise. It may be a precarious position to be in, but the Wolves have to sit back and root for the Jazz to make a run to the playoffs.
In fact, the schedule-makers did the Wolves a favor by pitting them against the Denver Nuggets, currently 1.5 games ahead of the Jazz for the 8th seed, in the final game of the season. Wouldn’t it be something if the Wolves could knock off the Nuggets in the last game of the season and thus thrust the Jazz into the postseason?
It may be that the Wolves will have a hand in their fate after all, rather than putting the future of their franchise in the hands of Jefferson and the Jazz.