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Game Preview #31: Wolves vs. Lakers

Minnesota will look to make it two wins over Los Angeles in 10 days as LeBron James and the Lakers visit Anthony Edwards and the Timberwolves in Minneapolis.

2023 Play-In Tournament - Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves look to keep the good times rolling at Target Center as they welcome LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers to Downtown Minneapolis for the second matchup in as many weeks.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (23-7) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (17-15)
  • When: Saturday, December 30 at 7:00 PM CT
  • Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • TV: Bally Sports North
  • Radio: Wolves App Radio, iHeart Radio
  • Line: Wolves -5 | Total: 225.5 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)

Injury Report

Updated as of 12:15 PM CT on Saturday

Minnesota

QUESTIONABLE:

  • Karl-Anthony Towns (left knee soreness)

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right achilles tendon rupture rehab)
  • Leonard Miller (G League assignment)
  • Wendell Moore Jr. (G League assignment)

Los Angeles

OUT:

  • Colin Castleton (two-way contract)
  • Alex Fudge (two-way contract)
  • D’Moi Hodge (two-way contract)
  • Maxwell Lewis (G League assignment)
  • Gabe Vincent (left knee surgery)

QUESTIONABLE

  • Anthony Davis (left ankle sprain/bone bruise)
  • LeBron James (left knee contusion/non-COVID illness)

What to Watch For

2023 Play-In Tournament - Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

LeBron James, Starting Point Guard

I hope everyone reading this takes a moment to sit back and appreciate how insane it is that LeBron James — who will celebrate his 39th birthday at Target Center on Friday night — is still one of the most dangerous, fear-striking players in the NBA.

James is averaging 25.1 points on 53.9/41.3/74.4 shooting splits, 7.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks across 34.0 minutes per game in 29 appearances, all starts. For 98% of players in the league, that is a career-best season. But for King James, it has some worrying if age is finally catching up to him, as the only career-high in all of that is LeBron’s 41.3% 3-point clip.

Where James is at his best is not necessarily as a head-down, otherworldly athletic scorer, but as a playmaker whose second-to-none basketball brain and vision are his best assets. Lakers Head Coach Darvin Ham made the decision to bench D’Angelo Russell after L.A.’s 118-111 loss to the Timberwolves and it has made a big difference in the team’s offensive output in their three showings with LeBron functioning as the starting point guard. The Lakers have put forth three of their six most efficient performances in the half-court. As a result, L.A. has scored at least 115 points in three straight games, which ties their longest streak of the season. James in that stretch has recorded 26 assists and just eight turnovers, while averaging just north of 24 points per game on 53.2/66.7/93.8 shooting splits. The move has also benefitted Davis, whose scoring efficiency numbers are also up over the past three games. Vanderbilt, Rachimura, James and Prince are, coincidentally, four of Davis’s top six two-man pairings. L.A. playing more blended lineups with spacing and length has benefitted them throughout the bridges from first to second and third to fourth quarters, too.

The Lakers’ starting five from their 133-112 win over the Charlotte Hornets in their previous outing — James, Taurean Prince, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Davis — was terrific offensively despite never playing together before the game. They posted an offensive rating of 172 in 25 possessions, an effective field goal percentage of 71.2%, and a turnover percentage of just 4.0%. They did their work almost exclusively inside the arc, taking just two 3-pointers, but did an excellent job using their size (no one smaller than 6-foot-6) to create good looks in the paint and in the mid-range. That five wasn’t great defensively (120.0 defensive rating), but have the length and on-ball chops to figure it out with Vanderbilt checking Anthony Edwards. With Cam Reddish likely limited to some degree with a groin issue and Ham likely to keep Sixth Man of the Year front-runner Austin Reaves in his role off the bench five-man unit posted, expect that same crew to run it back on Saturday night, with LeBron aiming to pick apart the league’s top defense.

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Will Edwards Replicate “No Bullets in the Chamber” Mentality?

Anthony Edwards made it a point to get his offense going early in the Wolves’ 118-110 win over a depleted Dallas Mavericks team on Thursday night, scoring 14 of his season-high 44 points in the first quarter. He said postgame that he put it in his mind that he was “going to shoot it every time I touch it.” Why?

“I feel like last game I left bullets in the chamber. So, I ain’t want to do that this game.”

Edwards all season has struggled to follow-up his big games the next time out. Edwards has scored 30 points in a game 10 times, but only two of those performances has come on the heels of 30-point night. Ant always gets up for playing against opposing superstars — especially at home — so watching how he approaches the first quarter will be an important subplot to track.

Karl-Anthony Towns has struggled in his two games since returning from a shot to his lower thigh directly above his left knee, while Rudy Gobert, Jaden McDaniels, Naz Reid and Mike Conley have seemingly all taken turns as the No. 3 scorer behind Towns and Edwards in recent games. Given that, Ant taking it upon himself to more aggressively and consistently attack a Lakers defense that is long is certainly in the cards.

The one-time All-Star scored 27 points on 9/19 shooting and connected on seven of his eight free throw attempts, but also had five turnovers along with his five assists. Dialing up his usage may very well bolster the Timberwolves’ scoring, but doing so without also turning it over at a higher rate will be important.

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Quick Hitting Keys

Free Throws

The Lakers are 13-5 when they shoot at least 22 free throws, with one of those five losses coming in their trip to Minneapolis last week; the Wolves shot 25 freebies to the Lakers’ 24. Keeping L.A. off the free throw line and forcing their offense to play in the half-court — especially when LeBron is off the court — will be especially important as Ham has been tinkering with the rotation over the last few weeks beyond just the starting lineup. Gobert has done a strong job on Davis in the past, so keeping Rudy out of foul trouble will be key.

An Opportunity to Run When Limiting Second Chances

L.A. shoots 3-pointers at the fifth-lowest rate (32.1% of their total shots) and partly as a result collects offensive rebounds at the second-lowest rate (on just 23.5% of misses) in the league. If the Wolves are able to hold the Lakers to just one shot, L.A. is susceptible to allowing points in transition. The Lakers allow the sixth-most fast break points per game (15.4). Minnesota won the battle on the offensive glass (nine OREB for 17 second chance points to seven and seven, respectively for L.A.) in the last meeting, but lost the fast break matchup 16-10. That broke last year’s norm, when the team that scored more in transition won all three matchups last season.

Shotmaking

Simply put, Minnesota has to execute and knock down the open shots they generate. Los Angeles does a great job keeping their opponents off the free throw line (16.3% free throw rate is second-lowest in the NBA), so the points will have to reliably come from elsewhere. The Lakers pretty strictly play drop coverage, so pull-up mid-range shots will be there, as will corner 3s (L.A. is 22nd in opponent corner 3 shot frequency at 9.7%). The Timberwolves shoot above league average in both categories, so if the rest of the Wolves can follow Edwards’ lead in knocking down shots, Minnesota will have ample opportunities to score beyond the free throw line.

Bench Scoring

Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch hasn’t gotten much from his bench over the last five games. Minnesota ranks 29th in the league in bench scoring (23.0 PPG) in that span, which will need to change against a Los Angeles team that has scored 39.4 PPG over the same stretch. Finch acknowledged that an 8.5-man rotation has influenced that after Thursday’s win.

“I wanna try to get a ninth guy. I played Troy, I thought he played great in his six minutes. I just ... needed defense out there. The way [Dallas] were shooting the ball, the way they were moving, I needed as much defense as I could possibly get to try to stay with those guys and keep them from putting a run together.”

Brown Jr. very well could be the solution to improving Minnesota’s scoring off the bench, especially trying to stretch the floor against teams like L.A. that will try to pack the paint as much as they can against efficient interior scorers in Edwards, Towns and Gobert — three players who get their points inside in very different ways. Getting Naz Reid, whose scoring has dipped nearly 40% from his season average in the last five games, will be important against whichever of Christian Wood/Jaxson Hayes plays the 5 (Ham has been flip-flopping in recent games), as neither player can defend in space.