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Game Preview #27: Wolves vs. Lakers

The Minnesota Timberwolves look to get back on track against familiar faces and a LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers squad, both of whom are on the tail end of a back-to-back.

Photos by Brian Sevald and David Sherman / Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers are coming off losses on the road last night. The Timberwolves have yet to drop two straight games this season, and the Lakers are trying to get back in a groove following their In-Season Tournament Championship as they are currently on a three-game losing skid. However, it will be an uphill battle for Los Angeles, as they will be without LeBron James and possibly Anthony Davis as well.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (20-6) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (15-13)
  • When: Thursday, December 21st at 8:00 PM CT
  • Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, MN
  • TV: Bally Sports North & NBA TV
  • Radio: Wolves App Radio, iHeart Radio
  • Line: Wolves -8 | Total: 225 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
  • Jerseys: Wolves (City Edition), Lakers (Icon Edition)

Injury Report

Updated as of Thursday at 1:00 PM CT

Minnesota

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right Achilles tendon rupture)
  • Leonard Miller (G-League assignment)
  • Josh Minott (G-League assignment)
  • Daishen Nix (2-way, in G-League)

Los Angeles

AVAILABLE:

  • Anthony Davis (left ankle sprain)
  • Jarred Vanderbilt (left heel bursitis)

OUT:

  • LeBron James (left ankle peroneal tendinopathy)
  • Gabe Vincent (left knee effusion)
  • Jalen Hood-Schifino (low back spasm)


What to Watch For

Los Angeles Lakers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images

Injured One-Two Punch

LeBron James (left calf contusion) and Anthony Davis (left ankle sprain) were listed as questionable to play in last night's game against the Chicago Bulls. However, the Lakers announced that both were active a few hours before tip-off. James logged 37 minutes and finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, while Davis saw 38 minutes on the floor and recorded 19 points and 14 rebounds. L.A. lost to the Bulls, 124-108. The game was pretty much decided heading into the fourth quarter, but Head Coach Darvin Ham didn’t pull his two best players until there was 1:18 left in the game.

The Lakers had a short flight following the conclusion of last night’s game (roughly one and a half hours) from O’Hare Airport in Chicago to MSP. Regardless, both star players will be gassed tonight, with their availability possibly up in the air.

During the third quarter last night, Davis rolled his left ankle — the reason he was listed as questionable to play — and was forced to take a seat on the bench. AD missed the final four minutes of the third quarter but was able to start the fourth for the Lakers and play the majority of the final frame (he wasn’t subbed out until just over a minute left). The 6-foot-10 forward was in obvious pain after he returned to the floor, limping during stoppages of play and moving slower up and down the court.

“I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do in order to get ready for tomorrow,” Davis said postgame. “I’ll get some treatment tonight, in the morning, and pregame.”

Just like AD, LeBron played most of the fourth quarter, which was odd. The Lakers were trailing by 12 after the third, and the Bulls put their foot on the gas pedal down the stretch. After the news broke this afternoon saying that James was indeed out this evening, it seems obvious that the plan all along was for him not to play tonight at Target Center.

L.A. has had five back-to-back sets so far this season. James has played in all but one of those games. It’s also worth noting that LeBron has played 30 or more minutes in the first game of two back-to-back sets this season — playing in the second game once and sitting out the other. Last night, the 38-year-old forward registered the eighth most minutes in a single game this season. Couple that with an ankle injury, and it makes sense why he is sitting out. However, it’s always a bummer when star players, especially LeBron, don’t play on the road. Tickets to see the Lakers play on the road are always marked up, mostly due to the fact that one of the biggest faces of the NBA is on the roster.

The Lakers’ success this season largely hinges on the two-man play between James and Davis, especially over the last five games. Since the IST Championship game against the Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles has gone 1-4 and dropped to 8th in the Western Conference. During that span, the Lakers have received excellent play from their top three players. However, after James, Davis, and Austin Reaves, things have gone stone cold for the rest of the team.

Here’s a quick snapshot of L.A.’s rotation over their last five games, via NBA.com:

The Timberwolves have been super lucky when it comes to playing opposing teams without their star players. They played the Miami Heat without Jimmy Butler, the New Orleans Pelicans without Zion Williamson twice, the Golden State Warriors without Stephen Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers without Joel Embiid, the Pacers without Tyrese Haliburton, and now the Lakers without James and possibly Davis. So far, Minnesota has been able to take care of business against banged-up teams, and they will be looking to do the same tonight.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Who Will Takeover?

The Timberwolves will be in search of a bounce-back win just over 24 hours after their frustrating loss against the Philadelphia 76ers last night. Minnesota has yet to drop two straight games this season. However, the Lakers’ starting five, when healthy, can match up pretty well against the Wolves’ lengthy starting unit.

In some ways, Philly and L.A. have similar starting lineups. They both feature scoring in the backcourt and size in the front-court. Last night, we saw Sixers Head Coach Nick Nurse start De’Anthony Melton, Tyrese Maxey, Kelly Oubre Jr., Tobias Harris, and Embiid. For the Lakers, when healthy, their starting lineup has been D’Angelo Russell, Cam Reddish, Reaves, James, and Davis. When comparing that starting lineup to Minnesota’s, I can’t help but think Jaden McDaniels may be in line for another big game.

Against the Sixers last night, McDaniels finished with a season-high 21 points on 8-of-12 from the floor. Most of the damage done by Jaden came before halftime, as he attempted just one shot in the second half. The 6-foot-10 forward was able to impose his size when attacking downhill against the much smaller and weaker Philly perimeter defense. Seeing him be aggressive on offense was refreshing, especially after his struggles since returning from injury. However, last night’s game was just a step in the right direction — it would be great to see him build more confidence tonight.

Looking at the matchup, I imagine Reaves guards McDaniels off the jump, with Reddish presumably being on Anthony Edwards and Russell on Mike Conley. Reaves is scrappy and physical. However, he has the worst defensive rating on the Lakers this season at 114.2 (minimum of 20 games played). Reaves also stands at just 6-foot-5, lacks length, and has been more than content with allowing his man to get into the paint, funneling them into the long arms of Davis. Jaden has always been able to make tough buckets in close, and those skills further came to light last night in Philly.

If Davis — who is listed as questionable — sits out, the Lakers may not be dead to rights, at least on the defensive end. Jaxson Hayes was who Ham and his staff elected to start in place of AD on December 15th, which was the last game The Brow missed. I’d assume Hayes would get the nod tonight if Davis sits out because he is the only player on Los Angeles’ bench who poses real size (7-feet, 220 pounds). In that case, the Lakers’ paint defense will stay afloat, as Hayes has a team-best 106.1 defensive rating (minimum of 20 games played). The 7-foot big man would likely lurk around the paint and make things difficult for Minnesota’s perimeter players attacking downhill. However, the second Hayes leaves the paint, bad things will happen, as he lacks foot speed. His lack of perimeter defense makes him someone the Wolves should target and engage in pick-and-roll situations.

With LBJ already being ruled out, Rui Hachimura will probably be the one filling in for him. Hachimura is a competent defender with solid size. However, Karl-Anthony Towns has been on a tear of late, and it hasn’t mattered who is defending him — KAT has been scoring against everyone in his path.

Regardless of how the Lakers’ starting lineup looks like tonight, Naz Reid, who has too much game, should be able to exploit any defender that comes in contact with him. I’d assume Hayes and old friend Jarred Vanderbilt will check him off the bench. As mentioned above, Hayes isn’t a good perimeter defender, so that could allow Reid to take over from deep, as we saw him do last week against the Dallas Mavericks. Vanderbilt is a stopper on the perimeter, but he still lacks interior size, which is the inverse of Hayes. As we all know, Reid is great with the ball in his hands, operating in isolation situations, so I expect him to make Vando — should the two go head-to-head — look foolish at least once.

Any way you draw it up, smashing the over on any Naz play seems like easy money.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images

Starting Strong

Last night in Philadelphia, Minnesota started flat for the third game in a row, which is becoming too much of commonplace. The Timberwolves shot 9-of-24 from the floor and 2-of-8 from deep while turning the ball over four times in the opening frame. Anthony Edwards has mentioned a few times this season that the team gets cussed out by the coaching staff at halftime. Those inspiring mid-game pep talks have led to incredible third quarters. However, a tell-tale sign of becoming a more mature team is not requiring those halftime wake-up calls.

The Timberwolves have been one of the best third-quarter teams in the NBA this season but also one of the worst first-quarter teams. Minnesota’s net rating in the opening frame this season is -2.1, which slots them in at 20th league-wide, while their third-quarter net rating is 17.9, which is good for 2nd. The Lakers are similar to the Wolves in that regard, but they are a much worse first-quarter team. Los Angeles’ net rating in the first 12 minutes is -14.5, which puts them at 28th in the NBA, only in front of the 2-25 Detroit Pistons (-15.3) and the 7-19 Portland Trailblazers (-17.0). L.A.’s play improves after halftime as their net rating jumps up to 10th best in the NBA (3.3). However, they are not on the same level as the Wolves.

Minnesota needs to gain a sizable lead early against the Lakers tonight, regardless of who is playing or what the matchups look like. No more messing around out of the gates. Target Center is expecting yet another capacity crowd on hand. The fans will be rowdy off the jump, and the team needs to feed off the energy and lock in.