Preview and Chat: The Minnesota Timberwolves

Darius Soriano —  March 27, 2013

Records: Lakers 36-35 (8th in the West), Timberwolves 25-44 (12th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.3 (8th in the NBA), Timberwolves 99.6 (25th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.5 (18th in the NBA), Timberwolves 102.8 (14th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Jodie Meeks, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, Andrei Kirilenko, Derrick Williams, Nicola Pekovic
Injuries: Lakers: Metta World Peace (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Timberwolves: Kevin Love (out), Brandon Roy (out), Malcolm Lee (out)

The Lakers Coming in: We told you yesterday that Ron is out indefinitely with a torn meniscus. Today Mike D’Antoni was asked if he expected Ron to return before the regular season ended and he said “no”. Today we learned that Ron will be out at least six weeks, so we know where that pessimism came from. D’Antoni also said that Jodie Meeks would start in Ron’s place with Kobe sliding up to small forward. This was one of the expected outcomes so it’s not that big a surprise. I’d still like to see more Earl Clark, however, if only because defense is still important and Clark offers more versatility on that end than Meeks (or Blake). We’ll see how the rotations play out tonight, though.

What Meeks starting does do is put more pressure on Kobe, especially from a minutes and defense standpoint. And while the minutes matter in the big picture, where Kobe will be tested most is on defense. With neither Ron nor Clark in the lineup, the task of guarding the best perimeter opponent will now likely fall to Kobe. This should engage him more on that end and that can be a good thing. This has the potential to go badly if Kobe takes plays off when working off the ball as the player he’d be leaving would have a greater ability to hurt the team’s defense. Also, if the plan is for Kobe to guard the other team’s main perimeter threat, it will also require he expend more energy on that side of the ball which can have an adverse affect on his offense. One of the reasons Kobe stopped guarding PG’s was, presumably, because he voiced his concerns about carrying such a heavy load on both sides of the floor with the result being a decline in his play.

What this means long term we don’t yet know for certain, but the writing on the wall says Kobe is in for a lot of heavy lifting and at this point in the year (and his career), that may be too much to ask. I’m not doubting he can do it, but I am concerned.

The Timberwolves Coming in: The Wolves are as healthy as they’re likely to be for the rest of the year as Chase Budinger has finally returned from his knee ailment and Kirilenko is also back in the lineup. They’re still without Kevin Love, but recent reports have him acknowledging that he may not play for the rest of the season as he nurses his broken hand. With little left to play for this year, it may be best to sit Love out even if he is capable of getting back on the floor, but that’s a different discussion for a different day.

With better health has come better play, at least last night. The Wolves dispatched the Pistons by over 20 points, using an efficient offensive attack, balanced scoring, and disruptive defense to do the deed. With a nearly full allotment of players, the Wolves were better able to spread the floor on one end and pressure the ball on the other. Add to that the attacking style of Ricky Rubio (who looks to be nearly fully recovered from his ACL surgery) and Luke Ridnour from the top of the floor and the Wolves look closer to the team they were supposed to be this season. Nothing can replace having Kevin Love in the lineup, but this group today is better than their record.

Timberwolves Blogs: Go read A Wolf Among Wolves. You won’t be disappointed.

Keys to game: Even though the Wolves played last night, blowing out the Pistons kept their starters’ minutes relatively low which should remove the prospect of fatigue playing a major role tonight. Plus, the Lakers have beaten this team 21 straight times and that should erase any lack of motivation from their end. Getting a win against the Lakers would provide too much satisfaction for the Wolves to be anything other than ready for this contest. Add in the Lakers’ injury woes and the prospect of burying them even further surely appeals to Minnesota.

Forget motivation, though. This Wolves team is well equipped to get this W, simply off the strength of their roster now that everyone is healthy. When looking at the match ups, they have the types of players who can attack the specific weaknesses of the players who will be guarding them. Consider the following:

  • Rubio has quickness and has been much more assertive in going to the rim. He’ll pressure Nash’s defense all night by attacking him in the open floor and looking to penetrate in isolation and in the P&R.
  • Luke Ridnour can make spot up jumpers and can also penetrate off ball reversals or in the P&R. Meeks has a tendency to lose his man off the ball and make poor decisions when closing out. Ridnour will test his discipline all night.
  • Kirilenko does his best work off the ball as a slasher and then working off the dribble against sloppy closeouts. If Kobe plays his typical roaming style, there’s a good chance AK47 will beat him on cuts and get into the lane for quick shots before the defense can respond.
  • Derrick Williams is a stretch PF who can shoot the jumper but also has enough athleticism to attack in space and elevate for lobs. Gasol has looked slow since returning to the lineup and chasing around a superior athlete could mean trouble.

Add in Barrea’s creation off the dribble, Shved’s streaky shooting ability, Budinger’s all around game (though he’s been showing rust in his return), and Dante Cunningham’s mid-range attack off the Wolves’ bench and the Lakers will have a tough night of defense ahead of them. Slowing dribble penetration will be key, but so will off ball awareness both in closing out on shooters and in dropping down to the paint to help on the glass against Pekovic when Dwight is forced into help situations.

Offensively, the Lakers must find a balanced attack as well as a style that they can stick to for the entire game. Against the Warriors early post ups were later abandoned in favor of P&R’s and neither action found enough traction to be successful. I’d like to see Kobe find more opportunities closer to the rim instead of isolating or running countless high P&R’s but that will be difficult against Kirilenko and Budinger (who both offer good size on the wing). That said, running him off the occasional screen or working him on cuts from one side of the floor to another could be useful in getting him clean looks.

Starting Meeks should enable the Lakers to spread the floor a bit better and hopefully that will open up more driving and passing lanes into the middle of the floor. If Meeks takes up residence on the weak side, he should see a fair amount of open looks on three pointers. If he’s able to knock them down, the defense will respond accordingly and should mean that Dwight and Pau can get more touches going to the basket. It should also mean that Kobe and Nash have a bit more room to attack coming out of the P&R.

Tonight’s also a game where the bench will need to put up some points. Barrea, Budinger, Shved, and Cunningham are all scorers and will look to impact the game by getting buckets. Jamison, Blake, and Clark need to try to keep pace with Blake and Clark (especially) also providing enough on defense to slow their men. If the Lakers’ bench can balance scoring with playing solid D, it will go a long way towards getting this win.

There’s really no need to discuss how important this game is. But, understand the Lakers are only one game up in the loss column on both the Jazz and the Mavericks. This game was likely penciled in as a win long ago, but times have changed recently. The Wolves are healthier, the Lakers are less so and have lost three straight games. Righting the ship is important and that happening would be better tonight than not.

Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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