The Whiteboard: 3 things to watch in the NBA Play-In Tournament opening games

Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, The Whiteboard

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The NBA Play-In Tournament kicks off tonight with the Brooklyn Nets facing the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Clippers taking on the Minnesota Timberwolves. In each case, the winner will secure the No. 7 seed in their respective conference with the loser needing to play the winner of tomorrow’s games between the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds to figure out who stays in at No. 8.

A lot is riding on tonight and here are a few key strategic issues to keep an eye on.

Can the Nets shut down the Cavs stretchy bigs?

The Cavs will be playing without Jarrett Allen who is still recovering from a fractured finger, an injury that will have significant ramifications for their defense. However, it means the Cavs will likely be playing with much more stretch, pairing either Lauri Markkanen or Kevin Love with Evan Mobley for most of the game, which gives them a very different look on offense.

Markkanen has finished the year on a hot streak, averaging 18.2 points per game in just under 30 minutes over his last five games while hitting 17-of-33 (51.2 percent) from beyond the arc. When the Cavs played the Nets last week, Durant picked up most of the minutes at the 4 and defensive responsibility for Love and Markkanen. Mobley is enough of a threat to pull Andre Drummond or Nic Claxton away from the basket which puts some additional responsibility on Durant to be a weakside shot-blocker. The shooting of Markkanen and Love offer plenty of gravity in the other direction and Durant got caught more than a few times hovering, ineffectually, in between.

When Durant stayed attached to Markkanen on the perimeter, Garland and Mobley were usually able to win the two-on-two chess matches in the paint.

It’s worth noting that the Nets did win this game, getting 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’ role players and get some hot shooting from Love and Markkanen at the other end, they should absolutely be able to overcome any deficit in star power.

Which Kyrie Irving shows up for the Nets?

The good news for the Nets is that Kyrie Irving should be well-rested for this game — as there has been a fairly dramatic difference in his scoring efficiency between games with zero or one days rest (55.6 true shooting percentage) and games with two or more days rest (63.7 true shooting percentage). But Irving has nearly as many stinkers as gems in his game log this year and there is a canyon between his splits in Nets’ wins and Nets’ losses.

Irving, like many ball-handlers, struggled against the Mobley and Allen combination this season but he scored 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’s playing well it gives the Cavaliers two enormous defensive issues to work through with limited resources and should make things even easier for players like Curry, Drummond, Brown and Patty Mills to have an impact.

How much will the Clippers’ experience matter?

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

The Clippers also hammered the Timberwolves during the regular season, outscoring them by 40 points and winning three of their four matchups. The Timberwolves really struggled to execute their offense and create efficient looks against the L.A. defense — across the four games, they managed a grand total of 48 free throws and 90 of their total shot attempts (24 percent) were pull-up jumpers.

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

Paul George is back in the lineup and looking 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 returning. In addition, the Clippers added Norman Powell and Robert Covington at the trade deadline.

The Timberwolves have the talent to win but with the stakes — a chance to lock up just their second postseason berth in the past 18 seasons — they’ll need to play a much more precise and under control 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 started popping up. Justin Carter breaks down the winners and losers, from top to bottom.

Toronto Raptors fans would like the Los Angeles Lakers to keep their greedy little hands off Nick Nurse. And the head coaching search is one of like five unsolvable problems the Lakers will need to figure out to become a contender again.

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

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