Minnesota Timberwolves (25-16) host Cleveland Cavaliers (26-13)
In the midst of a 5-game homestand, the Wolves get to take the Eastern Conference superteam that features a top-five All-time NBA player in LeBron James. LeBron needs no introduction, having made his way to the NBA finals for the last seven years. He is, somehow, posting one of his best statistical seasons at age 33 in his 15th NBA season.
LeBron is averaging 27.6 points, 9.1 assists, 8.2 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and 1 block per game, all while shooting 39 percent from three and 56 percent from the field. He is one of the most dominant players that has ever played the game and this year is no different. At this point, LeBron is on track to be the front-runner for the MVP award, carrying this Cavaliers team that has been without Isaiah Thomas for most of the season to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
One of the ways that Cavs have continued their offensive dominance even without the virtuoso Kyrie Irving has been by moving Kevin Love to center full-time. This move has fully unlocked the Love-LeBron pick-and-rolls that always seemed underutilized during Love’s tenure in Cleveland. With Love at center, the Cavs are fully able to spread the floor, using the always dominant LeBron plus four shooters combination that always succeeds.
For his part, Love has been averaging 19.8 points and 9.8 rebounds, while making 41.5 percent of his threes.
However, similarly to the Wolves, the Cavaliers have not been great at defense this year. While the Cavs have the 4th highest offensive rating, they have the 26th ranked defensive ranking. The Cavs actually have the exact same opponent effective field goal percentage, 53.8 percent, as the Wolves.
The other notable players for the Cavs have been Dwayne Wade and Jeff Green, which is a surprising duo to count on to provide your consistent points. Jae Crowder has had an off-shooting year and looks a step slow out there. J.R. Smith typically is the gunner, and plays the 2nd most minutes per game on the team, but he actually takes the 7th most shots per game this year.
The Cavs are, for a lack of a better phrase, a weird team. It helps to have the best player in the world on your team.
However, the King is getting some help, other than from Kevin Love, now that Isaiah Thomas has returned. Thomas is coming back after a hip injury that he played through during the playoffs last year.
Thomas has only played two games so far, but he looks like his old self and in about 20 minutes per game, he is scoring 18 points and taking a lot of the scoring and offensive creation responsibilities off of LeBron’s Atlas-like shoulders. It will be a ton of fun to watch him playing with LeBron out there, although Thomas will certainly not help with the defensive deficiencies of the team.
For the Wolves, the player with the herculean task will be Jimmy Butler as he will likely be tasked with slowing down LeBron. Jimmy has proven himself more than up to the task with his defensive efforts against some of the other best players in the NBA, and he certainly has some familiarity with matching up against LeBron, but this is an impossible task for anyone to truly accomplish.
It will be interesting to see how the Wolves attack this soft Cavs defense. Karl-Anthony Towns obviously has an opportunity to absolutely bully Kevin Love down low, but the Wolves are likely going to be dependent upon Andrew Wiggins to have a big game, as Butler will have more than his hands full with LeBron.
However, this will be a game that truly tests the new-found defensive effort of Towns. It is fairly likely that the Cavs will attack Towns in the pick-and-roll with LeBron and Love, which will be an incredibly difficult set for Towns to defend.
It is not often that we can truly say the Wolves are going up against one of the best teams in the league, not to mention the favorites to reappear in the NBA Finals, and say that the Wolves really have a chance to pull out a victory. But the Cavs are not as strong on the road and the Wolves have the personnel, as well as talent, to be able to attack these matchups. Should be a fun one.
Projected Starting Lineups
Prediction - Wolves 110 - Cavs 109. Jimmy Butler is good at basketball. Wolves steal one from the Cavs.