Records: Lakers 28-30 (9th in the West), Timberwolves 20-34 (12th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (8th in the NBA), Timberwolves 99.9 (24th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.7 (T 16th in the NBA), Timberwolves 102.5 (T 12th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Andrei Kirilenko, Derrick Williams, Nikola Pekovic
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Timberwolves: Kevin Love (out), Chase Budinger (out), Malcom Lee (out for the season), Brandon Roy (out), Andrei Kirilenko (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: Some nights the Lakers win even when they don’t play. Such was the case last night when the Warriors, Jazz, and Rockets all lost while the Lakers were idle. Picking up a half game in the standings on the three teams directly ahead of them in the standings was a nice gift and is something the Lakers will need to capitalize on tonight versus the T’Wolves.
The Lakers seem to understand that what’s most important is what they can control and are embracing the challenge in front of them. Kobe talks about the team being more on edge in trying to turn their season around while Nash and Howard are trying to enjoy the moment and have fun in their pursuit. Whatever the mindset, it’s clear that the Lakers know what they have to do and seem intent on getting it done. Of course they’ll need help, but the only way that the help even matters is if they also help themselves.
In other news, Pau Gasol is off crutches, is no longer limping, and has been cleared to begin work on an elliptical machine as part of his rehab. It will still be weeks before he returns — at least based off the original (and unchanged to this point) timeline — but it’s good to see that he’s progressing as he should. If the Lakers can, in fact, make the push they believe they can, Gasol will be needed ingredient down the stretch of the season.
The Timberwolves Coming in: Speaking of injuries, there is not a team that’s been hit harder than the T’Wolves and their record reflects that fact. They continue to miss Kevin Love and, with Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy still out (with Roy not likely to return this season), that’s 3 of their top 8 players (including their best guy) missing for most of the season. Lately, Andrei Kirilenko has also been banged up and, after playing only 10 minutes against the Suns on Tuesday, he’s questionable for tonight’s game.
With all the injuries, T’Wolves have lost 3 games in a row, 8 of their last 10, and 12 of their last 15. They simply don’t have the talent to compete each night and the players they do have on their roster are lacking the complementary skills to make defenses pay when their remaining impact players compromise their defender. Over time, this should improve, but it’s truly been a lost season for Rick Adelman’s group and, while it’s easy to say “those are the breaks”, Lakers’ fans should be all too familiar with how injuries can derail what looked to be a promising season.
So, even though there are some bright spots — Derrick Williams is growing and starting to show more of the talent that made him a #2 overall pick; Alexey Shved is having a promising rookie campaign; Pekovic has turned into one of the games better Centers; Ricky Rubio is still making dazzling plays as he works his way back from a torn ACL — it’s just not enough right now.
Timberwolves Blogs: A Wolf Among Wolves is a great site that’s worth your time. Check them out.
Keys to game: The T’Wolves are shorthanded and playing on the road where they’re only 7-20 on the season. There’s a chance Kirilenko won’t play and it will only challenge their suspect depth more if he’s forced to sit out. Meanwhile the Lakers, Nuggets game excluded, have been playing some good ball lately and are much better team at home.
These factors imply that the Wolves are in a bit of trouble tonight. That said, the Lakers still need to come out and execute their game plan and not just rely on their talent to get them by.
Offensively, the Lakers need to find ways to get Dwight Howard going against Pekovic. Few players are stronger than big Pek, but Dwight surely has a speed and quickness advantage that can be exploited if he, and his mates, work to make it so. Dwight needs to run the floor and look for early post up chances and also work hard in the P&R to set good screens and then explode into the lane. Dwight has not been rolling as well to the rim lately and that’s limited his offensive chances. If he can change that tonight, he’ll find himself open in the paint. Dwight would also be best served not trying to bang with Pekovic in the post, but instead using his good first step to get his shoulder by him and finish over the top with hook shots from either hand. Pek is not a leaper and if Dwight can get some elevation, he should be able to get shots off cleanly if he attacks quickly.
Lately the Lakers have been going to the P&R more often to set up their offense, but this game is a good one to re-establish Kobe in the post. The Wolves start two small-ish guards and that spells trouble for trying to slow down #24. In the last game Adelman let Ridnour take his chances against Kobe, a decision that worked out well for the Lakers. If the Wolves go in that same direction tonight, Kobe working out of the post on a cleared side would allow him to create shots for himself or teammates — especially if the double team comes (and it will come eventually). Lately, Kobe has found a pretty good balance between looking for his own shot and moving the ball on to open teammates and this game, with these match ups, should allow that trend to continue.
Defensively, the Lakers must concern themselves with two major variables: tempo and Minnesota’s P&R. The Wolves aren’t an incredibly fast team, but they do play at the league’s 11 quickest pace and will look to run out on the Lakers. Starting two natural PG’s allows them to push the ball at a moment’s notice and the Lakers must make sure to change ends well in transition. This has, of course, is nothing new for the Lakers but considering it’s one of the few ways the Wolves can get enough points to hang tonight, they better be ready for it.
As for the pick and roll, the Wolves have multiple players who can initiate this action and the Lakers must be prepared for all the variances of it that they’ll see tonight. In Rubio, Ridnour, and Shved there are countless ways this set will be deployed including staring the action on one side of the floor only to swing the ball and then run a secondary P&R with the other guard who’s camped on the weak side. Rotations will need to be sharp and the wings will need to be aware of their responsibilities as they shift between being the strong and weak side defender when the P&R is deployed. Also important will be the “big” man who guards Derrick Williams as he has the ability to stretch the floor but will also sneak back side for lobs if his man turns his head for too long. So, whether it’s Earl Clark or Ron who draws Williams, their awareness will need to be high tonight.
Overall, this is a game that the Lakers should win, but after a season of false starts, resets, and poor performances there are no gimmes. The team has had a better focus since the all-star break and they’ll need that to continue in this game. They mustn’t overlook the Wolves. They too are an NBA team with good players and pride to get a win. The Lakers need to be ready for a strong effort from them, strike first, and carry over that aggression throughout the entire game.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TNT. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.