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Wolves at Hawks: Trying to Beat a Bad Eastern Conference Team

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After defeating the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday night, the Wolves look to ride their momentum through Atlanta

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Timberwolves enter tonight’s contest against the Atlanta Hawks with little to prove. The Hawks are a league worst 14-35 and are losers of three in a row. Meanwhile the Wolves are 32-20, a single game behind the third place San Antonio Spurs and ready for a difficult back-to-back tomorrow night against the Toronto Raptors. On paper this is a night in which the Wolves should demonstrate that they’re the better team. But if the first 52 games of the season are any predictor: buckle up for a barn burner.

On the season the Wolves are just 8-11 against the Eastern Conference; in stark contrast to their 24-9 mark against the West. Further, they enter tonight’s game just 3-3 against the bottom five teams in the East standings (1-1 against each of the Nets, Magic and Hornets). They’ve shown a tendency to overlook winnable Eastern Conference matchups, especially when there’s a more formidable opponent coming on the horizon. This has happened twice already in the last month:

On January 3rd, the Wolves traveled to Brooklyn to face a struggling Nets team for the first time this season. They entered the game having won seven of their last eight and looking forward to their first matchup against the Boston Celtics the following night. The Wolves lost to the Nets 97-98, and went on to lose in Boston as well.

On January 16th, the Wolves flew to Orlando to take on the floundering Magic. They had just swept a five game home stand and looked forward to their first shot at the Houston Rockets just two nights later. The Wolves ended up losing to the Magic by six, and getting walloped in Houston the following game.

After tonight’s game in Atlanta, the Wolves will fly to Toronto to play the Raptors at The Air Canada Centre. It’s easy to see the pattern that is emerging, and thus it is vital for the Wolves to squash it. Instead of looking at tonight’s matchup as a ‘layup’ and focusing their attention on the more difficult game to come, it is imperative that they direct all of their energy toward defeating the Hawks.

The Hawks enter tonight’s matchup with the league’s 22ndranked offense and 25th ranked defense, while the Wolves sport the third best offense and 22nd ranked defense. But Minnesota will enjoy their second straight game with Jimmy Butler, their defensive lynchpin, back in the lineup. In games that Butler has played, the Wolves have held their opponent to 17.4 fewer points per game than in the matchups he has missed.

What to Watch for

  • According to CleaningTheGlass.com, the Hawks generate the fifth most points in the NBA from corner threes and shoot a league leading percentage from the corner as well (45.4%). We’ve seen this Wolves team lose games merely because they can’t keep up from beyond the arc. Watch for the Wolves to deploy extremely aggressive closeouts on three point shooters. They’ll be trying desperately to force the Hawks’ shooters off the three point line.
  • According to nbastats.com, the Hawks are last in the NBA in defensive rebounding, collecting just 74.4% of those available. The Wolves, on the other hand, are fourth in the league collecting 25.5% of available offensive rebounds. After Saturday’s win over the Nets, the Wolves are now 24-4 on the season when they out-rebound their opponents. In this game, look for Karl Anthony Towns to continue his dominance on the offensive glass (he pulled down a career high 10 offensive rebounds against the Nets). If this game is closer than it should be, the rebounding battle will be closer than it should be.

Expected Lineups:

Hawks

Dennis Schröder

Kent Bazemore

Taurean Prince

Ersan Ilyasova

Miles Plumlee

Wolves

Jeff Teague

Jimmy Butler

Andrew Wiggins

Taj Gibson

Karl-Anthony Towns

Our blogging buddies are over at Peachtree Hoops. Be excellent.