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Game Preview #45: Wolves at Nets

Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves continue their four-game road trip in Brooklyn, where they’ll take on Mikal Bridges and the struggling Nets.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves are back in action once again on Thursday night, as Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Co. are set to take on Mikal Bridges and the Brooklyn Nets in New York, the second stop on a four-game road trip.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (31-13) at Brooklyn Nets (17-26)
  • When: Thursday, January 25 at 6:30 PM CT
  • Where: Barclays Center — Brooklyn, NY
  • TV: Bally Sports North (Michael Grady, Jim Petersen and Jon Krawczynski)
  • Radio: Wolves Radio App, KFAN FM 100.3
  • Line: Wolves -3.5, Total: 217 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)

Injury Report

Updated as of Thursday 1/25 at 12 PM CT:

Minnesota

AVAILABLE:

  • Mike Conley (illness)

OUT:

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

Brooklyn

AVAILABLE:

  • Cam Johnson (left shoulder contusion)

OUT

  • Day’Ron Sharpe (left knee hyperextension)
  • Ben Simmons (left lower back injury)
  • Dariq Whitehead (left shin stress reaction)

What To Watch For

Minnesota Timberwolves v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

A Big Spot for Karl-Anthony Towns... On Both Ends

Offense

The three-time All-Star has put together a strong last 10 games after going through a rough patch in the wake of a knee/thigh injury that held him out of a contest against the Sacramento Kings back on December 23.

Towns is averaging 26.6 points on 54.1/52.2/85.5 shooting splits, 7.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists to 2.3 turnovers, and more than one stock per game in that span, which is undoubtedly an encouraging sign.

But, despite his resurgence, he has struggled in the three games he has faced a significantly smaller defender (vs. LAC, vs. MEM and vs. OKC). In the 13 games Towns has played since New Years’ Eve, he has scored at least 22 points in every game except for those three.

Against Brooklyn, Towns will likely draw Dorian Finney-Smith (6-foot-7, 220 pounds). The Nets’ swingman is incredibly strong, and defends post-ups exceptionally well. In the 42 post-ups against him this season, Finney-Smith is allowing 0.714 points per possession (34.3% shooting), which ranks in the 89th percentile league-wide, according to Synergy. While Towns is enjoying the most efficient post-up season of his career (1.134 PPP, 75th percentile), opting to spend more time on the perimeter spotting up or in the pick-and-pop game as a shooter and driver off the catch may make more sense. The Nets allow opponents to shot above-the-break 3-pointers at the seventh-highest rate in the league (28.3%) and allow opponents to connect on 37.3% of those looks (21st).

Defense

Towns will need to move better in space than he has of late. KAT has been jumpy on pump fakes, reactionary when players put the ball on the deck, and has used his hands and lower body too much when defending drives.

If Towns on the defensive end also checks Finney-Smith, he’ll have to be disciplined in spread floor situations. DFS isn’t a guy who will run off screens, but rather space to the corners or slots, and take advantage of players out of position as off-ball defenders. If Towns sinks into the paint too far, Finney-Smith — who shoots it at a 44% clip from the corner and 35% above the break — will let it rip; and if he doesn’t, DFS can put it on the deck and get into the paint before making a pass. He takes just 26% of his shots at the rim (10th percentile) and 9% of his shots in the mid-range (fifth percentile), and shoots just 51% (seventh percentile) and 30% (13th percentile), respectively on rim and mid-range looks.

Preventing Finney-Smith from getting up open shots — but not at the cost of poor close-outs and 5-on-4 situations — will be key.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Executing in the Half-Court — and Fourth Quarter

The Nets have been a much improved team defensively over the last two weeks, improving upon their season-long defensive rating of 117.4 (17th) with a 112.7 defensive rating since January 11 (eighth). Now that pretty much all of their key defensive pieces are back healthy, they have length around one of the league’s top rim protector’s in Nic Claxton.

Head Coach Jacque Vaughn’s group almost exclusively plays drop coverage and has a good defensive shot profile as a result. Brooklyn’s opponents take the mid-range shots at the 12th-highest rate in the league (31.5%), yet shoot them at the fourth-lowest percentage (41.4%). They also rank top-12 in opponent shot rate in the corners and at the rim, the two most efficient live-ball locations in the game.

Minnesota will need to move the basketball and cut effectively to break down the structure of Brooklyn’s defense so they aren’t straight line driving into gaps and turning the ball over. The Nets aren’t particularly good at running off stops or scoring points off turnovers, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a primary focus. The more the Wolves can get the defense in rotation and force switches, the more open their driving lines will be and the cleaner looks they’ll get both at the rim if Claxton is scrambling, and from the corners if they can collapse the defense. Beyond that, the Nets struggle to defend in isolation (1.055 PPP, tied for fourth-worst in the NBA per Synergy), so more single coverage on Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid will be a good thing.

That will show up throughout the game, but especially in the fourth quarter. If you think the Wolves have struggled in the fourth quarter recently, you would be correct. Minnesota holds a net rating of -15.7 in the last 10 games (28th in the NBA). The only teams worse than them are the Golden State Warriors (-16.9) and.... the Nets at a whopping -22.8.

The biggest factor is Brooklyn’s monstrous struggle to simply make shots. Their 46.8% true shooting mark is worst in the league by 5.1%, the same gap between 29th-ranked Philadelphia and 18th-ranked Denver. The Nets take care of the ball well, but their 38.3/22.5/70.8 shooting splits are as bad as an NBA team can get in a 10-game sample of any quarter.

Minnesota will need to run off of stops to either create easy buckets or cross-matching situations that help possessions end in shots, not turnovers. The Timberwolves, after all, are connecting on shots at a fine rate in the fourth quarter of late. Chris Finch’s group is just fouling too much (6.0 fouls per fourth quarter in L10, 26th in NBA) and turning it over too much (16.1% of possessions, 20th in NBA).

If they get Mike Conley (illness) back, that will certainly help from not only a playmaking standpoint, but also in terms of shotmaking, too, as Conley is one of the top catch-and-shoot 3-point marksmen in the entire league this season (45.6%, 15th in the NBA among those with at least 100 C&S 3PA).