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Game Preview #44: Wolves at Wizards

Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and Minnesota will look to get back on track in Washington D.C., where they’ll battle Kyle Kuzma and the Wizards.

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

Game Info


Injury Report

Updated as of Wednesday 1/24 at 4:30 PM CT:

Minnesota

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right achilles tendon rupture rehab)
  • Mike Conley (illness)
  • Leonard Miller (G League assignment)
  • Josh Minott (G League assignment)

Washington

OUT

  • Jules Bernard (two-way contract)
  • Jared Butler (two-way contract)
  • Johnny Davis (G League assignment)
  • Eugene Omoruyi (two-way contract)

What To Watch For

Charlotte Hornets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

R-E-L-A-X

Say it with me. Relax. Take a deep breath and say it again. Relax.

The Timberwolves are in first place in the Western Conference with a record of 30-13. All eight of their games in between now and the February 8 NBA Trade Deadline are either against teams below .500 or squads Minnesota has defeated at least once this season. The entire full-time roster is healthy.

For as frustrated as Wolves fans may be at the team’s 128-125 collapse to the Charlotte Hornets, it is important to keep this season-to-date in perspective. Minnesota is now 11-3 against teams below .500 after going 17-18 last season (one in which they, in equally puzzling fashion, went 25-22 against teams .500 or above). A loss in mid-January — a time at which most NBA players are just trying to make it to the All-Star break — to a team with nine wins should not incite panic the way it did on Monday night.

It is perfectly okay to 1) enjoy the wonder of Karl-Anthony Towns scoring 62 points and 2) be frustrated about the outcome of the result — especially after what happened in their loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last time out — while also not make sweeping declarations about Towns’ game, mental makeup, or career, or the Timberwolves as a team.

First of all, the Hornets won’t be in the playoffs, and it’s natural for Minnesota — like every other great NBA team — to take games against stronger opponents more seriously, and they have already proven an ability to handle terrible teams. Mike Conley did not play. Towns scored a ridiculous 44 points in the first half, the most in the NBA’s play-by-play tracking era, which brought an understandably unique, once-a-season element to the game. Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid was one step ahead of Towns, en route to scoring 70 points. Players learned about Embiid’s performance mid-game according to our friend Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, shifting the focus from the team’s score to Towns’s score:

“When the Timberwolves went to halftime, they learned that Embiid had 59 points through three quarters in Philly against San Antonio. Players were buzzing as they came back to the court, asking assistant coaches for updates on where Embiid finished, so they could help Towns surpass it.”

Yes, the Wolves deserve to be the butt of the joke for the day. No question. But let’s not pretend that this loss is the reason why they won’t find success in the playoffs, need to trade Towns, trade for (insert your trade machine darling here), or make any serious changes.

Towns had eight turnovers for the game and shot 2/10 in the fourth quarter. He was benched and undoubtedly carries some blame. But he scored 62 points on a still wildly efficient 75.3% true shooting while carrying an insane 56.9% usage rate and the Timberwolves would’ve been completely lost without him. Yet he, oddly, carries the most blame when he was one of two players to show up for the game (shoutout to Nickeil Alexander-Walker!).

Anthony Edwards was a great passer in the first two-and-a-half quarters (career-high-tying 11 assists and zero turnovers), but took only one shot and didn’t provide the impact his team needed down the stretch. Rudy Gobert scored 26 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots in the first matchup with Charlotte. Last night? 13 points, 11 rebounds, and 0 blocks against a team playing without any of its centers. Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid combined to score 14 points on 5/14 shooting in a game you probably didn’t realize when either were in the game. McDaniels perimeter defense was poor for his standards until the game got close at the end.

NBA players are human. They don’t bring the 100% best version of themselves to every game, just like you and me don’t bring our best effort or focus to every workday. Regardless of how much they get paid, it’s bound to happen. Players are human beings, just like you and me.

Sometimes you have to win a dumb prize to understand you’re playing a dumb game, and that’s what happened to the Timberwolves on Monday. And guess what? Almost every team that goes deep in the playoffs or wins the title has these moments throughout the season. No. 1-seeded teams do not win every game against teams they are supposed to beat, hold every double-digit second half lead at home, or play maturely in every game.

Wednesday will bring a new game. At 30-13, the Wolves have surely earned some benefit of the doubt and a chance to put Monday behind them.


Washington Wizards v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Containing Kyle Kuzma

Kyle Kuzma has played in all seven of the Wizards’ wins this season and has scored at least 26 points in all but one of those wins. The former University of Utah standout is averaging 29.1 points per game on 47.8/35.6/78.6 shooting splits in wins this season, compared to just 20.3 points per game on 45.0/33.9/78.5 splits in losses.

Kuzma has largely been pretty consistent this season, but his play has dipped considerably in January; after averaging in between 22.3 and 23.6 PPG for the month in October, November and December, he is down to 17.8 PPG in January on 41.8/28.6/87.0 shooting, down from his averages hovering around 46.0% overall and 36.5% on 3s.

Minnesota this season has struggled to defend 4s that can bully McDaniels and speed past Towns, a category that Kuzma falls into. But when you look at Kuzma’s shot chart, you can quickly see why the Wolves may find success while defending him. He takes 39% of his shots from the mid-range (86th percentile among bigs, per Cleaning the Glass), while connecting on just 38% of them (31st percentile). Kuzma is an excellent corner 3-point shooter (46%, 77th percentile) and finishes very well at the rim (72%, 65th percentile), but those areas represent just 35% of his shot diet.

Forcing Kuzma to pull up in the mid-range and above the break (26% of his attempts, but makes only 31% of those shots), where the Wolves’ defense ranks third (40.4% dFG%) and sixth (34.4% dFG%), respectively, will be a key.

Washington Wizards v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Defending the Rim

A common theme in the Wizards’ wins is their success at not only generating looks at the rim, but converting on them as well. In five of their seven wins, rim attempts have represented at least 35.5% of their total looks.

In the other two games, they held their opponent to 104 and 106 points, respectively, which each came in the last month, during which the Wizards’ defense has drastically improved upon their 30th-ranked defense (122.6 defensive rating).

Nearly every player in the Wizards rotation (Kuzma, Jordan Poole, Tyus Jones, Deni Avdija, Bilal Coulibaly, Daniel Gafford, Corey Kispert and Landry Shamet) shoots at least 68% on the rim. As a result, Washington ranks third as a team (70.2%) in field goal percentage at the cup. The key for Wes Unseld Jr.’s group is to get there, though, as the Wizards rank 13th in rim rate (33.8% of their total shots, per Cleaning the Glass).

Minnesota ranks second in the NBA in opponent rim rate (29.5% of their shots) and fifth in opponent rim FG% (63.1%), joining the Boston Celtics as the only teams in the top five in both areas. Whichever team plays to its strength more effectively could very well come away with a win.