No one is picking Minnesota to make it out of the first round, much less out of the Western Conference. Here are five reasons they could surprise us.
Minnesota hasn’t made the playoffs since 2003-2004, when they lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. That doesn’t mean this team is short on playoff experience, though. Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford have played in a combined 234 playoff games. Butler and Gibson especially, as the emotional leaders of this team, won’t be scared of the moment.
That being said, they have the toughest first round matchup in the NBA playoffs and the odds of them beating Houston four times in seven chances aren’t great.
But they aren’t zero either.
This isn’t going to be a list of reasons why the Timerbwolves are going to knock off Houston in the first round because we can’t, in good conscience, tell you that’s going to happen. This is more of a recipe, or rather a list of ingredients, that if mixed together correctly under the right conditions, could come out as four Minnesota wins.
Let’s not worry right now about what the Timberwolves would have to do to make a run past the first round. If they can beat the Rockets in a seven game series, they can beat any team in the NBA.
5. Karl-Anthony Towns plays out of his mind
Flip Saunders drafted Karl-Anthony Towns with the number one overall pick in the 2015 draft. The two quickly developed a bond that was much deeper than basketball, as Saunders welcomed Towns into his home and counted him as part of the family while the 19-year-old rookie adjusted to life in the NBA, 1,400 miles from his home in New Jersey.
In October of that same year, only months after his diagnosis, Saunders lost his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 60. Saunders passed two days before the start of the NBA season, before he had a chance to see the number one overall pick who’d become part of his family play a game in Minnesota. Before he did, he asked Towns to promise that he’d lead the Timberwolves back to the playoffs.
Towns delivered on that promise this season, in what has been a career year for the center.
If the Timberwolves have any chance of upsetting the top-seeded Rockets, they’ll need Towns to play absolutely out of his mind all series, or at least for four games, at both ends of the court.
Offensively, he’ll have to be aggressive, will have to look for his shot early and often, demand the ball and find open shooters when the defense caves in on him. This is going to be as much about his teammates getting him the ball as it is anything Towns can do, but the best chance Minnesota has at slowing the Rockets down is feeding Towns, giving him high percentage looks and kicking the ball out to open shooters rather than playing iso-ball or settling for contested jumpers on the perimeter.
Defensively, he’s going to have to play the series of his life handling Paul and Harden off the pick and roll and guarding against the lob when the Rockets’ guards penetrate. It’s impossible to stop their offense entirely but the Minnesota bigs are going to have to at least consistently apply pressure, get hands in shooters’ faces, and not give them the easy looks.
This is Towns’ first time playing in the playoffs so he’ll have to get used to a more intense game and playing on a bigger stage than he’s ever seen. He has all the ability in the world though.
And he’s playing for Flip.