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Timberwolves vs. Thunder: The Hot Hand

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As the Timberwolves host the Thunder tonight, Jeff Teague’s return to the lineup is nearing.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder (22-19) at Minnesota Timberwolves (26-16)

7:00 p.m. CDT

ESPN

The Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder will match up for the fourth time this season tonight at Target Center.

The matchup has proved to be a budding rivalry full of exciting finishes — the first three games this season have been decided by no more than four points. Minnesota has scored 341 points in three games against OKC, while the Thunder have scored 340.

Tonight’s game will be a close one.

But the most important question surrounding the Timberwolves right now is how Tom Thibodeau should handle the point guard position. Jeff Teague is reportedly set to return from a knee injury that has sidelined him for a couple of weeks, and that return could happen as early as tonight.

In Teague’s absence, Tyus Jones has stepped in as the starting point guard and performed admirably. Despite a smaller frame and inferior athleticism, Jones has excelled due to an exceptional basketball IQ.

Jones has elevated the starting lineup to new heights, particularly on the defensive end. The lineup of Jones, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns has a net rating of +28.0, good for the best five-man lineup in the NBA with 160 minutes played and nearly seven points higher than the second-best lineup.

Additionally, Jones leads all point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus stat with a mark of 2.14. For reference, Teague is ranked 70th with a rating of -1.16 and Aaron Brooks is 78th at -1.43.

Does this mean Jones should take over as the permanent starter over Teague? Not necessarily. Teague’s experience and scoring ability provide another element that increases this team’s potential on the offensive side of the ball. It’s also worth mentioning that replacing Teague for Jones in the starting lineup doesn’t exactly derail the success of the starting unit — it’s still very successful with Teague.

Here are the numbers for both lineups:

Jones/Wiggins/Butler/Gibson/Towns: 249 minutes, 119.3 O Rating, 91.3 D Rating

Teague/Wiggins/Butler/Gibson/Towns: 712 minutes, 110.8 O Rating , 103.4 D Rating

But Jones has the hot hand, specifically when teamed with the other starters. He has definitely earned significant run with the starters when Teague is healthy.

If I may — this dynamic has some parallels to the Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback situation. Case Keenum had the hot hand when Teddy Bridgewater was deemed healthy enough to play this season, and head coach Mike Zimmer rode the hot hand. The Vikings earned a first-round bye because of it.

Basketball obviously presents many different variables than football, but Jones’s hot hand definitely cannot be ignored after Teague returns.

If Teague does return tonight against the Thunder, Thibodeau’s handling of the point guard minutes will be an important factor to watch.

Meanwhile, the Thunder, despite their 22-19 record, actually have top-ten rated offense and defense. After stumbling out of the gates with their revamped roster, they went on an extended run of winning, driven in large part by an excellent defense. However, their best perimeter defender, and one of the best in the league, Andre Roberson, has missed their last five games due to tendonitis in the knee, and that has badly hurt their defense as they have lost three of their last five, including last night at home to the Blazers.

The Wolves will be at home, and will have a rest advantage, and can hopefully convert that into another win over the Thunder. Winning tonight would clinch the season series for the Wolves and help them in any tie-breaker situations for playoff positioning. Coming off their big win over the Cavs on Monday, the Wolves will look to keep rolling against a division opponent.

It should be a good one.

Expected Starting Lineups

Timberwolves

PG - Tyus Jones

SG - Jimmy Butler

SF - Andrew Wiggins

PF - Taj Gibson

C - Karl-Anthony Towns

Injuries: PG Jeff Teague (questionable — knee); C Justin Patton (out -- foot)

Thunder

PG - Russell Westbrook

SG - Terrance Ferguson

SF - Paul George

PF - Carmelo Anthony

C - Steven Adams

Injuries: SG Andre Roberson (out -- knee)

Prediction

The Timberwolves are rolling behind stellar play from Butler (22.8 points, 7.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game on 45-50-88 shooting splits over the last five games). However, angry Russell Westbrook will be in town tonight after leaving the locker room prior to media availability after last night’s loss to Portland.

I’ll give the edge to the Timberwolves at home, but this will be a close contest nonetheless.

Timberwolves 112, Thunder 109