Preview and Chat: The Minnesota Timberwolves

Darius Soriano —  March 9, 2012

Records: Lakers 23-16 (5th in West), Timberwolves 21-19 (8th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.6 (15th in NBA), Timberwolves 104.5 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.1 (10th in NBA), Timbewolves 103.2 (15th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio, Martell Webster, Wesley Johnson, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Injuries: Lakers: none; Timberwolves: J.J. Barrea (doubtful), Nikola Pekovic (questionable)

The Lakers Coming in: Let’s play a little game, shall we? Below are the stats for two teams. In order, they are points scored, points allowed, FG%, 3 point FG%, offensive efficiency, and defensive efficiency:

Team A: 97.3, 86.9, 47.9%, 32.9%, 106.7, 95.4
Team B: 90.9, 96.2, 42.5%, 27.5%, 100.7, 106.6

Can you name these teams?

If you answered “the Lakers” you’d be right in both cases. Team A is the Lakers at home, while Team B is the Lakers on the road.

The question here is which Laker team is the real one, and the answer, while not satisfying is that both of them are. The key is to try and carry some of what works at home on the road with them. Based off what the tape tells me that’s better ball movement, a commitment to defense and rebounding, and better concentration in general. Or, as I like to call it, the first halves from the Detroit and Washington games.

If the Lakers can channel some of that play on the road; if they can bring that confidence and commitment we can see a step up in quality from this team. If they can’t, the Lakers may face a road in the playoffs that doesn’t allow them to have home court advantage in any round (should they make the playoffs at all in this rough and tumble Western Conference). The choice – and it really is a choice – is there’s. Let’s hope they choose wisely.

The Timberwolves Coming in: The Wolves have won three in a row with two wins over the Blazers and one over the Clippers. That mini-streak has propelled them into the 8th seed and has them thinking playoffs again for the first time since the KG era. Most of this run has been triggered by the excellent play of Kevin Love. Over that three game stretch he’s scored 110 points (while hitting 13 three pointers) and grabbed 43 rebounds. Those numbers are simply amazing.

Love’s fantastic play has obscured the fact, though, that not everything is completely right with this team lately. Ricky Rubio is struggling something terrible right now. Over that same 3 game stretch he’s only made 5 of his 23 shot attempts and in his last two games has only handed out 10 assists total (he normally averages 8 a game). It’s not clear if he’s hitting the proverbial rookie wall or if this is just a normal slump that all players go through, but it’s clear that something’s not right with his game right now.

Ultimately, though, this team is trending up. They could use more production at shooting guard (rumors have them exploring their trade options) but every team has some holes they’d like to solidify down the stretch of the season. What matters more is that they’re finding their stride at the right time of the year and if they continue to improve they’ll not only make the playoffs but be a tough out once there.

Timberwolves Blogs: Check out A Wolf Among Wolves for everything you need on this team.

Keys to game: This will be the third time these teams have faced off this year. The last time they met it was a shade over a week ago, Kevin Love sat out, and the Lakers cruised to a win. So while that game doesn’t give us too much insight, over the two games it’s pretty clear that some trends have developed that inform what to look for tonight:

*Kevin Love is a problem. He rebounds like mad and exploits one of the Lakers’ biggest defensive weaknesses this season – the pick and pop. The Lakers must account for him on the glass on every possession and must rotate to him quickly on the perimeter and/or stick to him in P&R actions so as to not give up easy jumpers behind the arc. The Lakers must be especially aware of him as a trailer in early offense as he’s known to rebound defensively, make an outlet pass, and then run behind the play to the three point line and take open jumpers (ala Dirk). The Lakers must mark him in these situations and make him put the ball on the floor and finish off the bounce or become a playmaker for his teammates.

*Andrew Bynum has an advantage inside. He’s totaled 34 points on only 23 shots over the two games against the Wolves. Whether he’s facing Pekovic or Darko, the plan should be the same: get early position and use his superior size and length the finish over the top while drawing fouls when possible. The same can be said of Pau, of course. Love is not a defensive ace by any stretch and he too is surrendering height and length to the Spaniard. Considering Love’s such a threat on the other end of the floor, it’d be nice if Pau could go at him to make him play some defense and, hopefully, expend some energy dealing with Pau’s all court game.

*The Wolves will compromise their normal lineup to match up better with Kobe and Ron, so the Lakers must adjust to this personnel change. In the 2nd half of the last game, Adelman substituted Webster for Ridnour (who was forced to cover Ron in the post and on the backboards) to play better defense. Webster’s game varies a great deal from what Ridnour provides and needs to be accounted for behind the arc rather than the penetration/P&R based game of the speedy PG. So, whether it’s Kobe or Ron that guards Martell doesn’t matter as long as either pick him up behind the arc, don’t surrender open looks, and try to turn him into a playmaker.

*Offensively, Kobe must attack but must do so off the ball in the Lakers sets. Kobe’s put up good numbers against this team – averaging 33 points in the two games – and generally working over whoever guarded him. However, he’s been better working off the ball early and getting the rangy Wolves’ wings to chase him off picks or working them in the post rather than trying to isolate too much 20 feet and out. If Kobe sticks to that sort of attack tonight, I expect that he’ll have a fair amount of success. However, if he’s caught too often trying to work off the bounce from the three point line, another inefficient night may follow.

*The bench must match what the Wolves’ reserves bring to the table. Beasley and Williams are explosive scorers and they’ll mostly be matched up against Barnes and Murphy (or Gasol). Williams offers another pick and pop option and is an athletic finisher on the break whereas Beasley can do a lot of damage working in isolation using his natural scoring touch from the wing and off the bounce to get into the paint and shoot over the top of his man. The Lakers reserves must not only work hard to slow them down but must also provide some offense to counter the production they’re sure to produce. If the Lakers back ups can hang with the Wolves, the game should tilt in LA’s favor.

Tonight offers the Lakers a chance to salvage their road trip by getting a quality W before heading home to face the Celtics on Sunday. Nothing can erase the bad losses to the Pistons and Wizards but today can provide a step back in the right direction for this team. Here’s hoping they take advantage of their opportunity and get this win.

Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on KCAL. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710am.

Darius Soriano

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