Records: Lakers 20-3, Timberwolves 10-11
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.8 (5th), Timberwolves 107.4 (19th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.8 (3rd), Timberwolves 108.7 (16th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Timberwolves: Jeff Teague, Jarrett Culver, Robert Covington, Josh Okogie, Karl Anthony-Towns
Injuries: Lakers: Avery Bradley (out), Rajon Rondo (questionable); Timberwolves: Jeff Teague (questionable), Andrew Wiggins (questionable), Jake Layman (out)
Lakers coming in: After having win streaks of 7 and 10 games this season, the Lakers are now in the midst of a 3-game win streak — all 3 of which came on the road. Their last win in Portland saw the Lakers dominate the Blazers by clamping down defensively and either getting baskets at the rim or bombing away from distance to score at will offensively.
The Lakers are playing some of their best basketball of the season and it reflects not just in their results, but in their rankings on both sides of the ball. The Lakers are now top 5 on offense and defense while possessing the NBA’s 3rd best net rating. Only the Bucks have a better net rating while also ranking in the top 5 team on both ends.1The Mavs have a better net rating on the strength of their league leading offense, but are a middle of the pack defense.
On the injury front, Rajon Rondo is questionable and it wouldn’t surprise me if he sat out. After the Portland game, Rondo said that his hamstring has been bothering him for a while, but based on the level of tightness and the scoreboard, he decided he’d sit the 2nd half. The Lakers have been fairly cautious — particularly with Rondo — with injuries this year, so if there’s any soreness or tightness remaining, better to let him sit and get a little bit more rest before returning to the court. Avery Bradley remains out, but has been fully cleared for contact. Assuming no setbacks, I imagine he returns after he gets some practice reps in.
Other than that, this Lakers team is just rolling right now. They’re confident, playing with great chemistry, and have recommitted themselves defensively while still showing improvements on offense. That’s a great formula and we can only hope the trend continues.
Timberwolves coming in: Minnesota is currently 7th in the west, but have lost 3 straight games — including a brutal loss vs. the Thunder where a truly wild sequence at the end of regulation allowed OKC to force overtime where they pulled ahead an won. While up two, Jordan Bell checked into the game with an untucked jersey — something Chris Paul knew, by rule, was a delay of game and pointed out to the refs. That was the Wolves 2nd delay of game, which meant a technical FT was awarded — which OKC made. With KAT at the FT line, he missed the first, but made the 2nd, pushing their lead to 2. Steven Adams then heaved a full court inbound pass to Dennis Schroeder, who got a layup at the buzzer to force OT.
Tough losses aside, the Wolves are a much improved team, mostly because they have Towns and Wiggins has taken a major step forward as an all-around player. Wiggins early season improvement as a playmaker and assist man has added an element to the Wolves offense and offered a diversity to his individual attack that makes him an even tougher cover. Wiggins hasn’t been making next level reads, but him making the simple pass rather than forcing shots while also turning down long 2-point jumpers in favor of more 3’s and shots in the paint is a great development for him and the Timbewolves.
As for Towns, he’s simply an offensive monster. He’s shooting 59% on 2-point FG’s, but has ramped up his 3-point shooting to 43% on nearly 9(!) attempts per game. Towns truly is the evolutional NBA big man; a player who can pound you in the post if you put a smaller player on him or stretch the floor to well beyond the arc and kill you with the long ball should you put a slower footed big on him or sag off him to help inside.
Keys to the game: Look, there’s lots of stuff the Lakers need to do right to win this game, but slowing down Towns is at the top of the list. If Towns has a bad game or if he doesn’t play to his normal averages, the Lakers position improves to the point that the Timberwolves would need a lot of other things to go right to be competitive.
When it comes to slowing Towns down, one would think this task will fall on AD, but the way the starting lineups shape up, JaVale will likely draw the assignment first. We’ll see how long that lasts, honestly. JaVale is not equipped to defend Towns 25 feet from the basket and pick and pops will be problematic with JaVale trying to hedge and recover. Look for the Lakers to stunt with weakside guards and wings — if not rotate outright and send the hedging big back to the paint and then to the opposite corner on rotations should the ball swing.
As the game goes on, though, I think the Lakers will explore putting AD on Towns to see if he can cover more ground and help/recover in the Wolves screen game. If this game is close late, I actually expect LeBron to start defending the Wolves main ball handler (whoever it is), so the Lakers can switch defensively on ball screens, with LeBron ending up on Towns and AD helping on key possessions. This is the chess match worth watching, though, because Towns is a matchup breaker that will require innovative schemes to throw him off his game.
On the other side of the ball, the question of who defends LeBron interests me a great deal. The best matchup for him in probably Covington, but if the Wolves start small (as they have been), there’s a chance that it’s either Wiggins or Culver who draws LeBron with Covington on AD. If the matchups shape up that way, expect both LeBron and AD to play a lot from the mid-post, attacking their defenders in isolation to either score or draw enough defensive attention to get the Wolves into rotation on kick out, swing, and skip passes.
The Lakers outside shooting, then, is super important this game. They were hot in Portland and if that continues this game, they can create a cushion that the Wolves not named Towns will have trouble keeping up with. If the Lakers shooters are cold, though, this game could easily become a slog where LeBron and AD will need to do all the heavy lifting as scorers. They’re certainly capable of that against most any opponent, but their lives would be made so much easier if some of the role players knocked down shots from distance.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com