It has been a disappointing season for both the Miami Heat and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Heat finished the regular season with a 44-38 win-loss record that put them seventh in the East standings and just one game behind the Brooklyn Nets for the last guaranteed playoff spot. That put them in the play-in tournament where they were expected to emerge victorious against the eighth place Atlanta Hawks.
Last year, Miami and Atlanta squared off in the first round of the playoffs where the former, then the top seed in the East, easily ousted the latter in five games. The Heat came into the match-up having won four of their last five regular season outings, but the problems that have haunted them all season long came back to haunt them against the Hawks.
Atlanta ultimately emerged victorious, 116-105, setting up a seven game series with the second seed Boston Celtics. Miami’s lack of size in the frontcourt was exploited by the Hawks who outrebounded them by an astounding 63-39 margin. This led to an equally striking 26-6 disparity in second chance points.
Furthermore, the Heat’s shallow rotation was exposed in the loss to Atlanta as only four players managed to score in double digits. 37-year-old guard Kyle Lowry had a standout 33-point performance off the bench, though the rest of Miami’s reserves managed to score just four points which underscored their poor depth.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves’ inability to close out the seventh place Los Angeles Lakers in their 108-102 loss was the latest development in their recent implosion.
The loss came just a few days after their prized offseason acquisition Rudy Gobert earned a one-game suspension for punching teammate Kyle Anderson during a timeout in their regular season finale. Starting small forward Jaden McDaniels also sat out with a fractured hand that he suffered from punching a wall in frustration during the same game.
These incidents were the perfect encapsulation of Minnesota’s underwhelming season where they took a step back from last year’s promising run despite trading for the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Gobert. Several injuries, including a calf strain that forced three-time NBA All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns to miss four months of action, made it difficult for them to develop any meaningful chemistry over the course of the year.
What made the Timberwolves’ defeat at the hands of the Lakers even more frustrating was that they had a 15-point advantage in the third period and still held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. This marked the 19th time that Minnesota lost a game where they had at least a 10-point lead and the fifth occasion where they blew a double digit edge in the fourth quarter before eventually losing the contest.
Though everything seems to have gone wrong for the Heat and Timberwolves, they still have one last chance through the play-in finale to sneak into the playoffs as the eighth seed. However, they will have to face a pair of tenth seeds who are riding on the momentum of their upset road wins over their conference’s respective ninth place teams.
Miami will battle the Chicago Bulls who edged the Toronto Raptors, 109-105. Like the Heat, the Bulls have regressed this season as they have missed the playmaking skills of injured point guard Lonzo Ball. The high-scoring exploits of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic have kept them afloat all-season long and Chicago will need another big performance from them to get past Miami.
The Bulls pose a much better match-up for the Heat relative to the Hawks. Beyond Vucevic, Chicago does not have the personnel to punish Miami’s small frontcourt like Atlanta did in their showdown.
In addition, the Bulls, similar to the Heat, do not have much firepower beyond their best players which means that this game is likely to wind up becoming a shootout between each team’s stars.
Over in the West, Minnesota will have to deal with the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder who are fresh off a thrilling 123-118 win versus the New Orleans Pelicans. The trio of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, and Lu Dort combined for 90 points in their victory against New Orleans and will be looking to do more of the same when they face the Timberwolves.
Gobert will be back in action for Minnesota following his one-game suspension and their size upfront should make them the favorites in this contest. Oklahoma City typically plays just one big man at a time and rookie center Jaylin Williams, who is listed at 6’10, will have his hands full competing with the 7’1 Gobert and the 6’11 Towns.
The Timberwolves, led by grizzled veterans such as Mike Conley, are a much more experienced team compared with this young Thunder squad which further tilts the odds in their favor. Oklahoma City has proven to be a feisty bunch though and have proven that they will not back down.
This contest could potentially turn into a one-on-one clash between Gilgeous-Alexander and Anthony Edwards down the stretch which will be another highlight in what has been an exhilarating play-in tournament so far.
Miami and Minnesota desperately need a win in their upcoming play-in games to salvage their seasons. These two teams came into this year with lofty expectations, yet have fallen short due to a myriad of factors. Major changes may be on the way for them in the upcoming offseason if their respective campaigns end in disheartening fashion, though they have one last chance to make lemonade with what has been a lemon of a season for their franchises.