UPDATE: Kobe Bryant has been cleared to play in tonight’s game. And, with that clearance, he will start at shooting guard. Mini-crisis in the form of lineup questions averted. With the lineup and rotations now stabilized (or at least as stable as a Mike Brown lineup and rotation can be), a normal game plan should result. We’ll now see if the T’Wolves stick with Ridnour in the starting lineup or if they decide to go with a bigger wing player (likely Martell Webster) in his place to better match up with Kobe on the defensive end.
Records: Lakers 20-14 (6th in West); Timberwolves 18-17 (9th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.0 (17th in NBA); Timberwolves 103.7 (14th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.0 (12th in NBA); Timberwolves 102.1 (13th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, no clue, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Wesley Johnson, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Injuries: Lakers: Kobe Bryant (questionable); Timberwolves: Kevin Love (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: Coming out of the all-star break there are many questions about this Laker team – including one major one – that are directly tied to how well this team will perform in their last 32 games. The time to make a real push is right in front of this team and it’s surely on the minds of the organization, just as it is the fans.
That said, the big picture must be narrowed down coming into tonight’s game. Kobe Bryant suffered a broken nose and a concussion in Sunday’s all-star game. And, due to the league’s new (for this season) concussion policy, Kobe will need to pass several tests, including some involving physical exertion before he’s cleared to play tonight. Reports state that Kobe’s making progress and is performing well in these tests, but as of right now, his status is still unknown. We’ll keep you posted as to whether or not he plays, but as you can see above, if he doesn’t play, then I’ve got no clue who will start in his place. The most likely candidates are Kapono, Ebanks, or even Steve Blake (he can match up with Luke Ridnour), but Mike Brown isn’t tipping his hand here.
(As an aside, that list of potential replacements once again shows the lack of guard depth and the roster imbalance on this team. Blake is the backup PG and both Kapono and Ebanks are natural SFs. It still amazes me that there’s not one true SG on this team outside of Kobe. But I digress…)
The Timberwolves Coming in: The T’Wolves have won 5 of 6, and besides a win over the Bobcats, none of them were slouches. Their lone loss in that stretch was in OT to the Nuggets on the road. Last night, they beat the Clippers by pulling away down the stretch with Kevin Love on the pine (bruised ribs) and their bench (72 points in the game!) carrying them. Michael Beasley and rookie Derrick Williams both had huge games, and as a team, they picked up their D to shut down the Clipper attack.
All this is to say that the T’Wolves are playing quite well right now. They’re playing team ball, defending better, and are gaining confidence nightly. There will still be the mistakes that come with playing a lot of young players, but their talent level and coaching is good enough to overcome some of them. As all teams gear up to try and make a playoff push, this team should not be ignored. They have all the ingredients to not only make the second season, but to knock off a team when they get there (especially if they can avoid the Thunder in round one).
Timberwolves Blogs: Check out A Wolf Among Wolves for superb writing and coverage of this team.
Keys to game: Obviously, Kobe’s status for this contest is a key variable to how the game plays out. If #24 is able to play, the game plan should look very similar to what it’s been all year vs. all opponents. The Lakers will need to go inside, but that will need to be balanced with Kobe working well both on and off the ball to free himself up to get good looks. If Kobe does play and the Wolves keep Ridnour in the starting lineup, Kobe will likely be guarded by Wes Johnson, which would leave Ridnour or Rubio to guard Ron. If that’s the case, I’d love for Ron to get some post touches and see if he can collapse the defense and create open shots for his teammates, especially to Gasol and Bynum as the help is likely to come from a big man (this strategy should also be in place should Ridnour guard Kobe).
If Kobe doesn’t play, the Lakers’ perimeter offense just got a lot weaker and the Lakers will need to be even more reliant on their big men to produce points and good shots for others by establishing the post and making good reads. The emphasis on ball movement will need to go up a notch as Kobe won’t be there to create in isolation situations and bail out the team. The ball will need to be swung from side to side and the Lakers would be wise to run more P&R actions with Blake (and Goudelock) to get the defense shifting, which should promote better passing angles and more open shots.
All that said, Kobe’s presence and how it affects the game won’t be the only key. How the Lakers play defense also matters here. They’ll see countless P&R sets with Rubio handling and Love popping out so the rotations will need to be crisp. Going under the screens on Ricky is the preferred tactic, but the Lakers will still need to cut off the corner as the young Spaniard is crafty with his dribble and will still find cracks in the D when given angles. If he’s able to get into the lane and collapse the interior, it will only open up shots for Love on the perimeter and for Beasley, Webster, and Ridnour to get open looks as well.
Of course, there’s other matchups that intrigue too, and Bynum vs. Pekovic is one I’ll be watching closely. Drew claims he’s feeling fine after his knee injection over all-star weekend, and he’ll get a nice test on both ends of the floor tonight. Pekovic uses his strength to dislodge post players and his good feet to cut off angles on D, while on offense he slashes to the hoop in P&Rs . Bynum will need to stay active and do his work early on offense to try and carve out space, while on defense he can’t be caught flat-footed.
Another player to watch closely is JJ Barea. The Lakers are quite familiar with him from his days in Dallas and his game hasn’t changed much. He’s playing off of Love much like he did Dirk, running countless P&Rs to free himself up for his mid-range jumper and/or get to the rim, where his craftiness allows him to finish amongst the trees. His quickness will likely still give the Lakers fits, but that simply means it will take a team effort to contain him off the bounce and make him a passer rather than a scorer.
Lastly, the Lakers must bring their hard hats to the paint and find a way to rebound the ball against this team. We all know what Love is capable of doing on the glass, but Pekovic is also a good offensive rebounder and their large wings (Beasley, Williams, Johnson) can also go to the glass hard. Barnes, Ron, and the Lakers’ guards will all need to make a concerted effort to close down the free throw line to snag long rebounds and hit the glass hard to help out their big men. If the Wolves grab 15+ offensive boards they’ll likely win this game, so the Lakers must limit them to single possessions while also grabbing some extra rebounds on their own offensive glass to earn extra shots themselves.
Where you can watch: 7:30 start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.