Things to watch in opening games of NBA Play-In tournaments

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The NBA Play-In tournament begins tonight with the Brooklyn Nets and the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Clippers taking on the Minnesota Timberwolves. In either case, the winner will secure No. 7 in their respective conference, while the loser will face off against the winner of tomorrow’s games between Nos. 9 and 10 to see who stays in 8th place.

There’s a lot going on tonight and here are a few key strategic issues to keep an eye on.

Can the Nets knock out the Cavs’ stretchy bigs?

The Cavs will play without Jarrett Allen, who is still recovering from a broken finger, an injury that will have a significant impact on their defense. However, this means the Cavs will likely play with a lot more stretch, pairing either Lauri Markkanen or Kevin Love with Evan Mobley for most of the game, giving them a very different look on offense.

Markkanen has ended the year on a hot streak, averaging 18.2 points per game in just under 30 minutes in his last five games while scoring 17 of 33 (51.2 percent) from long range. When the Cavs played the Nets last week, Durant took over most of the minutes at 4 and was defensively in charge of Love and Markkanen. Mobley is a enough threat to pull Andre Drummond or Nic Claxton off the basket, giving Durant an added responsibility for being a weak shot blocker. The Markkanen and Love shots offer plenty of gravity in the other direction, and Durant has been caught floating ineffectively in between more than a few times.

Usually, if Durant remained tied to Markkanen on the rim, Garland and Mobley could win the two-on-two chess matches in the suit.

It’s worth noting that the Nets won that game, taking 35 points on 20 shots from Kevin Durant, but also 45 points on just 32 shots from Seth Curry, Bruce Brown and Andre Drummond. The Cavs’ defense suffers without their twin-tower pairing of Mobley and Allen, but if they can limit the Nets’ roleplaying and get a hot shoot from Love and Markkanen on the other end, they should absolutely be able to take any star- Deficit to overcome energy.

Which Kyrie Irving turns up for the Nets?

The good news for the Nets is that Kyrie Irving should be well rested for this game – as there is a pretty dramatic difference in his goal-scoring efficiency between games with zero or one day off (55.6 true shooting percent) and games with two or more days off (63.7 true shot percent). But Irving has nearly as many stinkers as gems in his game history this year, and there’s a chasm between his splits in Nets’ wins and Nets’ losses.

Irving, like many ballhandlers, has struggled against the Mobley-Allen combo this season, but he has 23 points with 11 assists on 9 of 22 from the field in 40 minutes against the Cavs this season with Mobley on the floor but Allen off . If he plays well, it gives the Cavaliers two huge defensive problems to solve with limited resources and should make it even easier for players like Curry, Drummond, Brown and Patty Mills to make an impact.

How important will the Clippers’ experience be?

The Timberwolves’ primary rotation has just 88 games of postseason experience, 59 of which belong to Patrick Beverley. Paul George has 108 alone and he’s not the only player to single-handedly have almost as much postseason experience as the entire Timberwolves roster – Reggie Jackson (69 games), Marcus Morris (64 games), Nicolas Batum (58).

The Clippers also beat the Timberwolves during the regular season, beating them by 40 points and winning three of their four matchups. The Timberwolves really struggled to execute their offense and look efficient against the LA defense – across the four games they managed 48 total free throws and 90 of their total shot attempts (24 percent) were pull-ups.

However, all three of those losses came in November and their last clash in January was an 18-point win for the Timberwolves. However, the Clippers are also a different team in many ways.

Paul George is back on the lineup and seems increasingly ready to make a difference, averaging 22.6 points, 6.8 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game in just over 30 minutes per game since his return. Additionally, at the close, the Clippers added Norman Powell and Robert Covington.

The Timberwolves have the talent to win, but with the Stakes – a chance to secure just their second postseason berth in the last 18 seasons – they need to play a much more precise and controlled game than they did against the Clippers in the early part of this season.

Other NBA Stories:

The WNBA draft went as expected for the first few picks before the wild curveballs showed up. Justin Carter breaks down the winners and losers from top to bottom.

Toronto Raptors fans want the Los Angeles Lakers to keep their greedy little hands off Nick Nurse. And finding the head coach is one of five unsolvable problems the Lakers must solve to become a contender again.

If you somehow missed Evan Mobley this season, you might have missed the NBA’s next big thing.

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John Verrall

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