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Game Preview #26: Cavaliers at Wolves

Minneapolis will welcome back Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love as the Cavaliers visit Target Center for a Friday night fixture with the Wolves.

Philadelphia 76ers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Who: Cleveland Cavaliers (14-12) at Minnesota Timberwolves (11-14)
When: 7 PM CST
TV: Bally Sports North
Radio: 830 AM WCCO Radio
Line: MIN +1.5 | O/U 212.5


What To Watch For

“It’s still special ... but it’s not the same,” Ricky Rubio said Thursday about his return to his NBA home, after being traded for Taurean Prince and a 2022 second-round pick on July 29.

The 31-year-old Spanish Unicorn was disappointed with how things worked out last season with the Timberwolves, and admitted that a change was probably best for both sides, but it doesn’t remove the human aspect of the situation.

“It’s not just me; it’s my family that’s got to move. I’m gonna tell my wife and my two-year-old kid, ‘Oh we’re there for a year and then we have to move again,’” Rubio said.

Rubio mentioned that he and his wife had bought a house in Minneapolis after former President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas pulled the trigger on a draft night deal to bring him back to where it all started. The beloved veteran playmaker added that the 2020-21 season was the most difficult one of his career.

After being traded this time, however, Rubio is returning to Minnesota with an old friend by his side. Kevin Love, like Rubio, was selected by the Wolves with the fifth pick, albeit one year prior. Fittingly, the Wolves will be dawning #TreesAroundTheWaist tonight (S/O Josh Braaten).

If there’s anyone who understands what it is like to battle through the emotional toll being a Timberwolves player has on a man, it’s Love, who was traded to Cleveland — for Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and Anthony Bennett back in August of 2014 — after playing the first six seasons of his career in Minneapolis.

The two shared the stage in Minnesota for three seasons, during which the Wolves improved year-over-year in each season under Rick Adelman, who retired following the 2013-14 season, Love’s last in Minnesota.

Rubio remained a Timberwolf until the summer after the 2016-17 season, leaving an indelible mark on Wolves faithful in six seasons of his own, before returning for one last (long, uncomfortable) ride with he team last season.

Tonight, Rubio and Love return to grace the Target Center floor, that they know oh so well, as part of one of the NBA’s most fascinating reclamation projects in recent years. The 2021-22 Cleveland Cavaliers are one of the few teams I can remember in my life that have made a leap from wearing the “most unwatchable team in the NBA” crown to becoming one of the league’s most exciting watches in a matter of months, due in large part to their star rookie.

The Cavs drafted USC standout Evan Mobley with the third pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and he is already one of the league’s best defensive players. Thanks to his incredible range, 7-foot-4 wingspan, lateral quickness and timing, Mobley has the makeup of an all-time great defender. Unsurprisingly, he ranks third in Defensive EPM and is fifth in blocks per game among players with at least 25.0 minutes per game and five games played. Not to mention, he is averaging 14.0 points on 54.3% true shooting, 8.2 rebounds., 2.5 assists, and 3.0 stocks in 33.8 minutes per game.

Joining Mobley in the front court is Jarrett Allen, one of the game’s premier interior presences on both ends of the floor. Allen has a legitimate case for the All-Star game this season; he’s averaging a career-high in points (17.1), rebounds (11.3) minutes (33.4), field goal percentage (70.4%!!) and field goal attempts (10.0), and is, somehow, averaging just 1.8 fouls per game despite contesting the 14th-most shots in the NBA (14.6).

Rubio is a major factor for Cleveland, as well. He is averaging a career-high 13.2 points her game, 5.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 29 minutes per game off the pine, leading a young, but confident Cavs bench group.

The Wolves will have their hands full in driving at two of the league’s best on the defensive interior, but Anthony Edwards will need to be up to the task if the Wolves want to walk away victorious.

Utah Jazz v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Edwards has struggled in the last five games, scoring 20.6 points on 17.4 shots per game and shooting just 39.1%. He’s had power outages in key moments and hasn’t been able to rise up the challenge of willing the Wolves to victory, especially so while D’Angelo Russell has been out with lingering right ankle soreness (he is doubtful to play tonight, per Chris Finch, but is doing “better”).

The Wolves are -5.5 per 100 possessions (24th percentile) with Edwards on the floor and Russell off the floor, compared to +8.1 (86th percentile) with them both on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s no secret that Edwards plays very well off of the dynamic lead playmaker and that his presence is sorrily missed. Edwards’s stats have dipped in most key categories (except for assists) in four games without Russell compared to the 21 games he has played with D-Lo this season. It’s no os

Karl-Anthony Towns will need to come to play, as well, but this time from the jump instead of coming out of halftime. Towns took just two shots in the first half of Wednesday’s loss to Utah, largely because he was waiting for the Jazz to bring a double team.

“I told [Towns] you just gotta go quick ... You watch Joel Embiid play. There’s nobody in the league that can guard him. He goes quick. You can’t double him because he catches and goes quick,” Edwards said about Towns getting doubled. “I told KAT, you catching the ball and you holding it. You waiting for the double, telling them to come double me instead of catching it and going. They can’t guard you.”

Towns proceeded to score 18 points on nine shots in 17 minutes played in the second half, largely because he was making quick decisions with the ball. We’ll see if he can get more quick attacks tonight and see more spot-up attempts from 3.

In Russell’s four missed games, Towns’s 3-point attempts haven’t moved; he averages 5.8 per game both with and without his point guard, which is a major factor in the Wolves 0-4 record without D-Lo this season. Towns is shooting a career-high 45.3% from 3 this season, yet shooting his fewest attempts per game since 2018-19. That can’t be happening.

Currently, Towns’s 3-point-attempts-to-post-ups ratio sits at 5.8-to-3.4 (1.71). Simply put, Towns should be averaging closer to three or four times as many 3s taken as he does post-ups. If he did that, the Wolves would not only be a better offense, but Towns would be averaging damn near 30 points per game.

Utah Jazz v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

When we watch the Wolves play teams that have superstar players such as Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas or Brooklyn, they force feed their best players shots, especially when they’re hot. The rocket fuel in the at-times maddening machine that is the Timberwolves’ offense is Towns’s lack of shot attempts. Whether it is his own insistence upon failing to post-up and beat smaller 4s on him, or Finch balking at demanding his superstar to play where he’s best, the Wolves are suffering.

Tonight would be a welcomed time for Minnesota to ditch what isn’t working and play to their biggest strength, KAT’s 3-point shooting.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Status Reports

Minnesota

Probable

  • Patrick Beverley (left adductor strain)

Out

  • D’Angelo Russell (sore right ankle)
  • McKinley Wright IV (G-League two-way assignment)

Jaylen Nowell is not on the status report after missing the previous three games with back spasms. Karl-Anthony Towns (tailbone contusion) is also off of the list, suggesting he is progressing well.

Russell appears to be on his way back quickly.

Cleveland

Out

  • Collin Sexton (right knee surgery)

Gambling Pick

I’m giving out a gambling pick before every Wolves game this season. So far, I am 17-8 (68%).

Tonight’s play: Patrick Beverley over 8.5 points

  • Beverley is averaging 10.3 points per game in games without Russell this season
  • Has gone over 8.5 points in five of his last six games played with more than five minutes played
  • Beverley averages 9.0 points per game at home this season
  • His FG% and 3P% are seven and nine percent higher, respectively, at home versus on the road this season
  • Coming off his best game of the season on offense
  • Cleveland allows 25.1 points per game to opposing point guards, by far its most allowed to any position.