The Los Angeles Clippers are shining proof that even the most epic fail of franchises can come flying out of the bargain basement with a vengeance. Even the karmic Gods have not been able to supress the slumlord-owned Clippers. A good growth benchmark for the Wolves to aspire to, and luckily the Wolves don't have Vinny of the Black tempering any potential team growth. But thus far this season, the Wolves have had the privilege of beating the Clips twice at Staples Center. One came as a result of an epic 4th quarter comeback and Love game-winning three on national television; the other a post-all-star weekend stomping courtesy of hot shooting and a superb 4th quarter defensive effort from Darko Milicic. The latter was not a joke if you forgot. The Clips, coming off of a tight overtime win against Houston last night, are going to be a little winded themselves. Tonight could, once again, go either way. It all is predicated on the Wolves' team shooting, as all of their games really have been so far.
For those of you who obsessively follow the standings, over the past few weeks we have seen the Wolves climb slowly but surely into a potential playoff spot contender. The team is at the point where the playoffs are truly within reach and it is a spectacle to behold. They continue to surprise, delight, and to reduce the boilover bubbling from the collective melting pot of Minnesota fan cynicism by double digit percentage points each week. This team, put plainly, can compete with anyone in the league on any court. Just when you picked them to lose, they destroy Portland at home for the first time since the Garnett Era/World War 1. So, get excited, stay excited. Go to a game or two. Enjoy it. This is '96-'97 all over again.
Currently 9th (!) in the Western conference, we have seen a tiny bit of a gap created between the Wolves and the 8th seed. A whole two games. Despite this, every single game matters in moving up those standings. Who are the key teams to watch and root against in the final 8 weeks of the season? Let's break it down. But before this happens, let's all agree on this: even if the Wolves fall short this year, how much better is this than anxiously following the standings for lottery pick reasons? What a glorious change. Anyhow:
Playoff Locks/Likely Untouchables (6 Teams): San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Dallas, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Memphis.
Just not happening. While the Wolves hold tie-breakers vs. Dallas and San Antonio, none of these guys are going anywhere barring a serious injury or two per team. Some of these teams have sustained a serious injury as it is and still hold firm. Locks.
The Teams to Watch:
Denver (21-17, T, 7th/8th Seed):
Once a top West team, Denver has plummeted in recent months, but unfortunately for a very obvious and explainable reason. Lead by a HOF coach, Denver has straight up been injury plagued. The Denver Corey Brewers are currently missing Gallinari and Nene and are still improbably hanging around. Once those two clowns are back, expect them to be in the untouchable category very quickly, especially as Brewer continues to cement himself as a top 3 NBA player worthy of twice the maximum salary. Until then, they remain here due to chronic injury issues that may or may not ease up yet this season.
Houston Is the Key! (21-17, T-7th/8th Seed):
The Wolves' playoff hopes will likely come down to the Rocket's performance, which is a fitting and symbolic scenario for both sides. Ohhhh that fuddy duddy old McHale, still screwing us over (silently kicks a nitpicker in the nether regions who points out McHale acquired Love and Pekovic). The Wolves hold the tie-breaker, so should the two teams tie after 66 games, the Wolves are in. Houston has lost 3 in a row, but have maintained a consistent winning record all year long. I implore readers to root strongly against the Rockets for the rest of the year and to pay close attention to their every game. Houston's March schedule isn't exactly a climb up Mt. Everest relative to the Wolves, so keep an eye out for upsets. Houston is doing a lot of traveling in March along with the Wolves, but the competition isn't exactly sterling for the most part (they have a trip this week through what last year was the "NBA Shit gauntlet" of Toronto, Cleveland and New Jersey. Not as much this year, but close).
It's a good sign that the Wolves have pulled off two very difficult road wins vs. LAC and POR last week, but unexplainable games like the Phoenix game will haunt the team down the road. These types of wins are just as critical as Houston's hopeful eventual decline, and Kevin Martin's imminent demand to be traded to the Wolves.
Look Out for and Fend Off:
Portland: 18-19 (10th):
After a surprising loss against the Wolves Saturday, the Portland implosion continues. Fans are anxious as their team slowly cements themselves smack into the middle of no-man's land for the foreseeable future. This team straight up imploded in February. But, this is a group of winners with a very underrated coach and it is definitely way too early to write them off. It is not too early for the Wolves to call them up and work out a deal for Nic Batum, hopefully in exchange for something fair like the rights to Henk Norel, Blake Stepp and the rights to swap 2nd rounders in 2015. Just kidding. But wouldn't you have to trade Derrick Williams or a comparable serious asset for him if you could? Too bad a major deal is unlikely to take place between two teams that will completely be clawing against each other for the final playoff spot.
Utah: 17-19 (11th):
After a crazy hot start, this team has also imploded. They did reek of over achievement once the season started, so this isn't altogether overly surprising if last season is any indication. The early organic improvement from the Jazz was sort of odd in hindsight. I wouldn't expect Utah to be a significant threat from here on out. So, expect them to win about 10 straight here coming up.
Phoenix: 17-20 (12th):
Winners of three straight and slowly kissing the coattails of Portland and Utah. They could sneak up as silently as a post-Buffalo Wild Wings bowel episode.
Overall, for the time being, any future game against Portland is a must win, and a Houston collapse is a must-happen. Pay close attention to those two teams for now. The Wolves need to make good use of this 4 game home stand to stay in it.