What has happened to the T-wolves?
Before the season, I thought they had a chance (about 30%) to win the NBA title. Last week they lost to the expansion Charlotte Bobcats and lost their composure when being blown out by the Suns. The are 4-9 in their last 13. Right now they are 17-15, the seventh seed in the West and half a game back of the Lakers.
Look at the stats and you see the T-wolves are a mirror of the Lakers â€” good offense but horrible defense.
Minnesota averages 106.8 points per 100 possessions, the fourth most efficient offense in the league (the Lakers are eighth at 105.4). They shoot the ball well (team 49.3% eFG%, fifth best) and they are in the leagueâ€™s top ten in fewest turnovers and offensive rebounding percentage. The only thing Minnesota doesnâ€™t do well is get to the free throw line, they average 21.6 free throws per game, 25th in the NBA.
But the T-wolves canâ€™t stop anybody either. They give up 103.9 points per 100 possessions, the 24th worst defensive efficiency in the league (the Lakers are 23rd with 103.7). Weâ€™re also going to see the two worst teams in the league at creating turnovers â€” if one team can get the other to turnover the ball tonight it would be a huge advantage.
One thing has not changed in the land of 10,000 lakes â€” Garnett still Garnett. Once again heâ€™s an MVP candidate with a PER of 29.97 (leading the league), and has a better pure point guard rating than Chucky Atkins. With the Lakers problems covering the four this year, Garnett could have a huge night (Odom is going to have to step up defensively for the Lakers to win).
Once again, stopping the point guards could be the other problem for the Lakers tonight â€” while there has been talk of a drop-off, Sam Cassell is still playing well with a PER 19.32. The offensive drop off in Minnesota has been from Latrell Sprewell, whose PER of 11.69 is not only well below his average but the league average. Whether itâ€™s attitude or age, something has made Sprewell a weak point. As a side note, watch out for Fred Hoiberg off the bench tonight â€” heâ€™s only playing 15.9 minutes per game but is the highest eFG% of any player in the NBA right now, 68.2%.
What has derailed the Timberwolves and could derail Garnettâ€™s MVP bid is his defense â€” the two places that Minnesota gets most of its scoring are its two weakest points defensively. If Odom can have a good night on offense, and make Garnett work on defense, it will be a big boost for the Lakers. Also, this is a chance for Atkins to step up offensively â€” and do more than just launch threes. Drive the lane, Chucky, drive the lane.
Rudy T. told the Times expect to see a lot of the â€œtriangleâ€ offense tonight. What the Lakers ran in Houston was not the full-blown Tex Winter version we saw previous years but a stripped down edition. That said, it still created motion and openings in the offense that we had not seen from the Lakers all season. Look for the Lakers to run it through Kobe (not unlike what happened when Shaq was out in seasons past) and at times Odom. If the triangle is mixed with some isolation and other plays, it can be a good weapon.
I certainly didnâ€™t expect to see the Lakers and the T-wolves fighting for the same playoff spots this season, but that is the reality right now. There are going to be six or seven teams fighting it out for the final three playoff spots, so wins against teams in those spots are huge. Thatâ€™s why defeating Houston was big, and why Denver on Wednesday is huge. And, surprisingly, so is tonight.
Update: Former Laker fan favorite â€” and the heir to Gene Gene the Dancing Machine â€” Mark Madsen will miss the game tonight due to a broken thumb. (This happened over the weekend but I just saw it.)