Records: Lakers 48-20 (tied for 2nd in West), Timberwolves 17-52 (14th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.6 (2nd in NBA), Timberwolves 104.7 (23rd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.5 (7th in NBA), Timberwolves 110.2 (26th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Timberwolves: Luke Ridnour, Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, Darko Milicic
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff and Devin Ebanks (out); Timberwolves: none
The Lakers Coming in: Considering the Lakers haven’t played since Monday, it’s almost easy to forget that they’re one of the hottest teams in the league. Winning 10 of 11, the only team that can match what the Lakers have done of late are the streaking Bulls that have also won 10 of 11 including 8 in a row.
When things are going this well, the only concerns are health and if the Lakers can continue their strong play for the next 14 games and through the playoffs. On the first note, Kobe’s ankle is still swollen but he’s likely to play tonight after receiving non-stop treatment since Monday. He’s been taking off practices in order to reduce any potential strain on his bum wheel and I can only hope that over the next couple of weeks he can return to (relative) full health (after all, no one is fully healthy this time of year). Besides Kobe, Andrew Bynum continues to tell the press that he’s not yet fully healthy either. He states that he still has some fluid build up in his knee and that he’s on anti-inflammatory medication to help with the swelling that still occurs. I know that this sounds worrisome, but I take it as par for the course with Big ‘Drew. He’s always been 100% forthcoming with the media in how he’s doing physically and for a man that size, it may just be unavoidable that he has some of these lingering affects in his joints. Maybe this is why he says that he’d like to lose a bit of weight heading into the playoffs as a lighter frame may help with the force he puts on his knees.
As for the team being able to keep up their strong play, I don’t see why it can’t happen. Obviously health will play a factor in that, but right now this team looks focused and determined to play their best ball and when that’s the case they’re normally able to pull it off. There’s a reason that the Lakers have never been counted out as a true contender despite their up and down ways. They always seem to be able to conjure good play when it matters.
The Timberwolves Coming in: What can you say about a team that’s lost 50 games for the 5th straight year? They don’t defend consistently, don’t put together coherent offensive possesions over the course of the game, and the players don’t seem to be responding to their coach. This all has led to rumors of Kurt Rambis being out at the end of the year, but GM David Kahn refutes those reports. Either way, the Wolves need to reshape their team in some way to get their franchise back on track but it doesn’t seem like there’s an immediate plan that can actually make it happen. I mean, Ricky Rubio still speaks as if he’s at least a year away from coming to the NBA, Kevin Love – despite accumulating double doubles like Moses Malone – can’t win games on his own, and that GM that’s saying his coach is safe isn’t really acquiring the types of players that will make anyone’s life easier. So, this team continues to lose. And their fans deserve better. Remember, this was a team that faced off with the Lakers in the West Finals less than 10 years ago and had one of the best players in his generation as the core of a winning roster. And now they’re back to where they were as an expansion team. It’s actually all kind of sad.
Keys to game: Despite the Wolves being a bad team, they offer an interesting match up for the Lakers and often play them tough. And despite the gulf in talent that exists, this actually shouldn’t be a surprise. Just consider that the Wolves run the same offensive system as the Lakers, start a big line up that can better defend the Lakers’ strengths (especially on the wing in defending Kobe), play at a very fast pace, have a stretch PF that can hit open shots, and they attack the offensive boards to gain extra possessions. These traits all appear on the list of traits that would trouble the Lakers.
All that said, I expect the Lakers to win tonight. LA has more talent and is playing at a level that the Wolves just can’t match right now. In order to actually get it done, though, the Lakers will have to more than just go through the motions.
Offensively they’ll need to move the ball inside out and from strong to weak side to get the D moving. This will enable every player to get involved and find their rhythm early. I’d love to see a balanced attack tonight with all the starters getting to double figures with rarely balanced FGA’s across the entire team. I understand that individually each Laker has some sort of an advantage, but by playing team ball the Lakers should be able to break this game open early and make the Wolves play from behind.
Defensively the Lakers need to work on keeping the Wolves out of transition to force them to run their sets in the half court. When the Wolves have to play against a set O, their execution suffers and they become overly reliant on Beasley being able to create his own looks or they default into their base Triangle where they just don’t have the individual talent to generate the mismatches that force help and thus open up the cutters and weak side actions that really make the offense hum. If LA can build a wall against Ridnour in the open court and turn this into a game where Beasley, Darko, and Wes Johnson have to create looks for themselves, the Lakers will be just fine.
The other key to the game is rebounding. Any time you face a team with Kevin Love this becomes a priority and the Lakers must have their wits about them and go to the glass as hard as he will in order to avoid giving up too many extra possessions. I’m actually quite interested to see if Bynum continues his stellar rebounding ways when facing off against a team with the league’s leading rebounder. ‘Big Drew more than held his own against Howard, but Love is a different type of animal as he uses positioning, timing, and excellent feel for where the ball is going rather than classic athleticism to get the job done. This isn’t to say that Bynum won’t be able to just use his length and increased effort to go get the ball (after all, that’s been working quite well lately) but he’ll have a different type of challenger going after those same caroms tonight. Should be an interesting watch.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.