Preview and Chat: The Minnesota Timberwolves

Darius Soriano —  February 1, 2013

Records: Lakers 20-26 (10th in the West), Timberwolves 17-25 (12th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.5 (7th in the NBA), Timberwolves 99.7 (24th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (17th in the NBA), Timberwolves 102.5 (14th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Pau Gasol
Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Andrei Kirilenko, Derrick Williams, Nikola Pekovic
Injuries: Lakers: Dwight Howard (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Timberwolves: Kevin Love (out), Chase Budinger (out), Brandon Roy (out), Malcom Lee (out)

The Lakers Coming in: Earlier today it was announced that Dwight Howard would not play tonight after hurting his troublesome shoulder in the Lakers’ loss to the Suns. Howard, after being reevaluated, was sent back to Los Angeles today to receive a PRP (platelet rich plasma) injection into his shoulder. The injection — which is similar to the injection that Steve Blake received before he returned from his groin injury — will hopefully promote healing. Dwight will rejoin the team in Detroit for Sunday’s game and is listed as day to day. Hopefully he’ll play in Detroit, but that’s not yet known.

Dwight being out is hurts the Lakers on many levels. He’s not had his best season, but Dwight remains the Lakers’ best defensive player and paint presence on both ends of the floor. Him simply being on the floor changes the dynamic in how teams attack the Lakers’ defense and how they defend the Lakers’ on the other end, and that’s before we even talk about his ability to impact the game statistically.

Furthermore, in the last 5 games the Lakers were really starting to jell offensively and we were starting to see some positive trends from Lakers’ lineups that hadn’t been performing that great up to that point in the year. In Zach Lowe’s email back and forth with Bill Simmons, Lowe mentioned how the Lakers’ big 5 lineup (Nash, Kobe, Ron, Pau, and Howard) hadn’t performed that well up to that point in the season, though in a limited sample due to injuries. Well, in 5 games since that article ran, that lineup has performed much better, posting a +14 in 41 minutes, including some very encouraging numbers in the last 4 games (+24 in 39 minutes). Put in different terms, over that 5 game stretch, that big 5 lineup posted an Offensive Efficiency of 111.4 and a Defencive Efficiency of 93.2, both marks that would lead the league over the course of a full season.

The samples are very small and it’s too early to know if these are statistical blips or the start of sustainable trends, but not having Dwight available means we won’t know either way.

The Timberwolves Coming in: If you thought the Lakers have been hit hard by the injury bug, it’s probably time to look at the T’Wolves and understand L.A. has not been alone. As we speak, Kevin Love is out again after breaking his hand for the second time this season. Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger are also out, two players who would certainly be part of their rotation. Add in Ricky Rubio’s continued recovery from tearing his ACL last season (an injury that’s allowed him to play in 17 games this season) and this team has been put through the wringer on the injury front.

The injuries show in their record too. They’ve lost 5 in a row and 10 of their last 11 games. In that stretch they’ve only scored over a 100 points twice but have given up at least 100 in all but 4 of the games. They’re struggling on both sides of the ball and don’t have too many bright spots. Andrei Kirilenko has played very well this year and, when healthy, so has Nikola Pekovic. Add in some solid play from 2nd year pro Derrick Williams and not everything is awful. But, big picture, this team was hoping to make a playoff push this year and that seems like a long shot now. Especially with Love hurt and Rubio still finding his stride.

Maybe in time this team finds its stride and gets hot, but another trip to the lottery may be looming.

Timberwolves Blogs: Check out A Wolf Among Wolves for great insight and coverage of this team.

Keys to game: After the loss to the Suns, Kobe said he’s not worried about his team. He said they mostly played well but didn’t do enough to hold off the Suns, making too many mistakes down the stretch. I agree with Kobe. The team looked good most of the game, but lost because they lost their way and couldn’t get back on track. And while there’s little takeaway from losses at this point (the hole is too deep), the team would do well to remember what they did right against the Suns and try to carry that over against the ‘Wolves.

Missing Howard makes that harder, but not impossible. The Lakers still have the ability to play through Kobe on the wing and would be wise to do so. The Wolves will probably start with Kirilenko on Kobe, but that doesn’t mean Kobe can’t work from the mid-post and then put AK47 in pick and rolls to get the defense to start shifting. If Kobe can find creases in the D, it should open up shots for the other guys around the perimeter and for Pau in the pick and pop game when being guarded by Pekovic.

Furthermore, the Lakers should also be able to attack with Ron on quick duck-ins and on the offensive glass. The odds are hight that Ridnour will be forced onto Ron, and that should mean a huge discrepancy in size and strength for Ron to take advantage of the closer this match up gets to the painted area. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea for Pau to take on a high post role on many possessions and play high-low basketball with Ron as he works the post against the smaller man. And when Pau’s not passing in high-low opportunities, he’d do well to attack Pekovic off the dribble and try to use his quickness to either get to the rim or draw fouls on the brutish Timberwolf big man. The Wolves are not deep on their front line and if Pau can draw some fouls, it will only be to the Lakers’ advantage over the course of the game.

Defensively, the Lakers must concern themselves with the Wolves’ pick and roll. If I were a betting man, I’d imagine Rick Adelman implements a strategy to run the P&R at Nash and Pau as many times as possible in order to create the types of openings that will create shots for Pekovic going to the rim and for Kirilenko and Williams slashing from the weak side. It’s unclear if Nash will guard Rubio or Ridnour, though my guess would be the latter while Kobe guards the young Spaniard. If this ends up being the case, look for Luke to run the P&R a lot with Pek and make the Lakers two slowest footed defenders contain this action. The Lakers need to be prepared to defend this by rotating on the backside to take the roll man away and allow Nash to recover to Ridnour in the process.

What can help the Lakers’ D is the fact that, without Love, the Wolves simply don’t possess a shooter that needs to be respected enough to deter them from collapsing the paint. Kirilenko and Williams are not great shooters and both should be forced to hit from the outside and prove tonight will be different. A sagging D should help contain penetration and allow the Lakers to dig down on Pekovic’s post ups and disrupt him should he try to bully Gasol on the block. Pau has the length to bother Nikola, but it would still be a good strategy to make Pekovic a passer or to at least vary the looks they give him to make his job more difficult.

Where the Lakers need to be a bit concerned is in the play of the benches. The Wolves aren’t an especially deep team but they do have some players that must be accounted for. J.J. Barrea is a nice scoring option off the bench and he too will look to attack the Lakers in the P&R. He must be disrupted by knocking him off the ball and not allowed to find his rhythm. He’s a good driver and can compromise the D off the dribble and that will then feed his outside shot. Give him different looks and make him adjust to a D that keys in on him to make his life harder. The other threat is Alexey Shved. The rookie Russian is a nice combo guard that, in a lot of ways, reminds me of Rubio. He knows how to handle the ball in the P&R and has great feel as a passer. He’s a bit more aggressive in looking for his own offense, however, and mustn’t be treated as a non-threat. He will take and make jumpers and has no fear attacking the paint off the dribble. He’s been part of several of their comebacks this season and if he’s allowed to find his rhythm, he can carry their offense for stretches.

Like the Suns’ game, the Lakers are playing an opponent who doesn’t look threatening but have some ingredients to hurt them. A full 48 minute effort will be needed in this game, especially with Dwight not in the lineup. If the Lakers play hard through the buzzer, they have a good chance to get their first win of the road trip (and a much needed one). If nothing else, Wednesday should serve as a lesson to them tonight.

Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet and ESPN. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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