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Timberwolves at Thunder: Rivalry in the Making?

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The Timberwolves and Thunder have treated fans to a couple of instant classics already in 2017-18.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves (13-9) at Oklahoma City Thunder (8-12)

7:00 CST

NBATV

Rivalries are one of the most fun things about sports. Fandom is lifted to a higher level. Competition is lifted to a higher level. Intensity is lifted to another level. There’s a certain undefinable aura that lurks when rivals meet.

The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t been involved in a noteworthy rivalry in at least a decade, and the best explanation is that the Wolves have stunk for the last decade. But with more winning comes more fandom, competition and intensity — the perfect ingredients for a rivalry.

Minnesota is 13-9 and tied for fourth in the Western Conference thru the first quarter of the season. So far, so good. But it hasn’t been an easy ride to get there. The Wolves been on the fortunate end many 50-50 games this season — two of which came against the Thunder.

In the most recent matchup between Minnesota and Oklahoma City, the Wolves survived a late charge by the Thunder to win 119-116. The bench unit was outplayed and forced the starters to compensate. Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague were all positive double digits in the +/- column.

The first meeting of the season took place in Oklahoma City and produced the most epic finish to any game in this NBA season. Carmelo Anthony buried a corner three to give OKC a one-point lead with just a few seconds remaining. Andrew Wiggins bested Melo, however, by banking home a 35-footer with the help of a screen by Towns.

These are the kind of finishes that create rivalries, star-studded teams throwing multiple daggers in the final five seconds. If we’re treated to another instant classic tonight, we might actually have to start using the term rivalry to describe this matchup.

Unlike Minnesota, OKC has not lived up to expectations through the first quarter of the season. You might be surprised to find out that three ball-dominant, high-volume scorers on one team isn’t the most efficient way to score points, but the Thunder have proved that correct. Oklahoma City is ranked 28th in the NBA in field goal percentage (43.7%) and 25th in the NBA in three-point percentage (34.6%).

Of course, those rankings would be even lower if both games against the Wolves were removed. OKC has shot 49 percent from the field in two meetings with the Timberwolves this season.

The Wolves remain one of the most difficult teams in the NBA to figure out, and their most recent back-to-back slate paints that picture. On Tuesday, the Wolves concluded a four-game homestand with a nauseating loss to the John Wall-less Wizards. Tom Thibodeau played every starter played over 37 minutes and three of them played over 39 minutes to no avail.

Minnesota followed the ugly loss by earning a road win against the New Orleans Pelicans the following night. There were hardly any signs of fatigue and the Wolves thoroughly controlled the entire game despite Towns’ struggles with foul trouble.

Only two things can really be expected from the Wolves with each game: Thibodeau playing his starters roughly 40 minutes and Tyus Jones playing mistake-free basketball. That’s it. Everything and anything else is in the cards.

Expected Starting Lineups

Thunder

PG - Russell Westbrook
SG - Paul George
SF - Andre Roberson
PF - Carmelo Anthony
C - Steven Adams

Injuries: None

Timberwolves

PG - Jeff Teague (or Tyus Jones if Teague is unable to go)
SG - Jimmy Butler
SF - Andrew Wiggins
PF - Taj Gibson
C - Karl-Anthony Towns

Injuries: Nemanja Bjelica (foot) and Justin Patton (foot) are OUT. Jeff Teague (Achilles) is QUESTIONABLE.

Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune reported Friday afternoon that Teague is “prepared” to play, but will go through a pregame workout to confirm.

Teague’s return would mean no more minutes for Aaron Brooks and would likely mean Jones returns to the bench role. Regardless of how the minutes are distributed, however, it’s clear that Jones deserves more run with the starters given the way he’s performed in Teague’s absence.

Prediction: The Timberwolves return to one of the most obnoxious arenas in the NBA to play a team badly needing a win. I’ll take the Thunder in another close one, 109-105.