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Game Preview #33: Wolves vs. Pelicans

Zion Williams and New Orleans will roll into Downtown Minneapolis on the second night of a back-to-back for a matchup with Anthony Edwards and the Timberwolves.

Minnesota Timberwolves v New Orleans Pelicans

The Minnesota Timberwolves look to bounce back after a sloppy loss against the New York Knicks. Before they head on a four game road trip, the Timberwolves come home for a game against the New Orleans Pelicans who are on the second night of a back-to-back. These matchups always tend to get messy, and the determining factors could yet again be turnovers, free throws, and the mid-range.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (24-8) vs New Orleans Pelicans (20-14)
  • When: Wednesday, January 3 at 7:00 PM CT
  • Where: Target Center - Minneapolis, MN
  • TV: Bally Sports North (Michael Grady, Jim Petersen and Rebekkah Brunson)
  • Radio: Wolves Radio App, KFAN FM 100.3
  • Line: Wolves -6.5, Total: 222.5 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)

Injury Report

Updated as of Wednesday 1/3 at 1:00 PM CT:

Minnesota

OUT:

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

Questionable:

  • Luka Garza (lower back spasms)

New Orleans

AVAILABLE

  • Cody Zeller (face mask)

OUT:

  • Matt Ryan (right elbow surgery)
  • EJ Liddell (G League Assignment)

Questionable:

  • Trey Murphy (left knee tendonitis)

What To Watch For

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

Turnovers

Turnovers have been the popular topic around the Timberwolves for the last few games and for good reason. Minnesota now has a turnover rate of 15.6%, which ranks third-worst in the league. They’re only better than the Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz, and they’re just behind the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs. Those are four of the worst teams in the league. The Wolves have no business being in any sort of conversation with those teams, but until they start taking ball security seriously, they’ll continue to allow opponents to stay in games that should be blowouts.

While we’re all sick of hearing about turnovers, they could yet again be a determining factor in tonight’s game. The Pelicans’ defense ranks sixth in opponent turnover rate at 14.8%. They also rank eighth in points off turnovers per game with 17.4, which accounts for about 15% of their scoring average.

Conversely, the Timberwolves are allowing the eighth most points off turnovers to opponents at 17.6. Unless something substantial changes in the Wolves’ approach, it feels like a safe bet on where a good chunk of the Pelicans’ points will come from. This Timberwolves team is playing like a legitimate title contender, but they have to stop shooting themselves in the foot with their careless play.

Minnesota Timberwolves v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Free Throws

It’s not an aesthetically pleasing part of the game, but free throws are one of the most efficient shots in the game. Like most of the matchups between these two teams, free throws will likely play a major role yet again. Both teams play a very physical style of basketball, so it isn’t surprising that they both rank in the top-seven in the league in free throw rate.

Currently the Timberwolves have the sixth highest free throw rate of 22.8%, while the Pels rank seventh at 22.1%. In their last matchup, where Minnesota lost by 14, New Orleans went 31-40 from the free throw line. That is a ludicrous number of free throws. It was also an uncharacteristic fouling display by the Wolves.

Despite Timberwolves fans thinking they constantly get a bad whistle (there are definitely some rough nights), it’s really not that bad in totality. They rank 14th in fouls committed per game, have the sixth-highest free throw rate, average the eighth-most free throws per game, and have the ninth lowest defensive free throw rate. Despite perception, the Wolves’ “foul issues” really aren’t that bad.

All of which brings us back to the last matchup, though. 40 free throws are an inexcusable number to surrender, especially when you only generate 19. The main differentiators in that equation, though, were that the Timberwolves were missing Anthony Edwards and Zion Williamson had 12 attempts on his own. Over his last four games, Edwards is averaging 13 free throw attempts and is now getting fouled on 14.8% of his shot attempts, which ranks in the 93rd percentile. Similarly, Williamson ranks in the 94th percentile as he’s been fouled on 20.8% of his shot attempts. By simply including Edwards’s production, what was already an outlier free throw discrepancy is significantly reduced. It doesn’t lead to pretty basketball, but free throws are likely to yet again play a major role in this matchup.

Minnesota Timberwolves v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Beware the Mid-Range

The Timberwolves have a very modern defense that tries to force opponents to take the most inefficient shot in the game, a mid-range jumper. They allow the third-fewest shots at the rim and the seventh-fewest shots from beyond the arc, but the second-most shots from mid-range. In the vast majority of matchups, this is an ideal strategy that gives them the best chance to win. Against certain matchups, though, it can spell disaster.

Even though the Timberwolves have allowed opponents to shoot 40.7% in the midrange (fourth-best in the league), we’ve consistently seen opposing stars get in a groove and put-up monster numbers because they’ve found a rhythm there. The Pelicans could be another one of those matchups as they take the sixth most midrange shots in the league. Additionally, they shoot 46% in the mid-range, which is the fourth-highest mark in the league.

The Pelicans have six players who play at least 15 minutes per game and rank in at least the 60th percentile in mid-range shooting accuracy. One of those players is Brandon Ingram, who has the highest usage on the team, and the other is CJ McCollum, who is their most commonly used point guard. Whether it’s Ingram hunting mismatches or McCollum running the pick-and-roll, New Orleans could find a lot of success in the midrange.

There are a few ways the Wolves can theoretically combat this. The first is to have the help defender play more at the level of the screen to deter the ball handler from attacking space. This will keep Ingram and McCollum out of the midrange, but it will put more stress on the low man defender to rotate to a rolling Jonas Valančiūnas, lead to more corner three opportunities, and likely result in a surge in defensive fouls. All of those things, combined with the fact that it’d be a pretty big departure from how the Timberwolves have defended all season, probably doesn’t make it that realistic of an option. The second, and more feasible option, is that the Wolves’ point of attack defenders really step up their game. Screen navigation has been a big issue for the perimeter defenders recently. When they can’t get through a screen, it allows the ball handler to freely attack space, forces unnecessary switches, and disorganizes the entire defense. Fighting through a Valančiūnas screen isn’t an easy feat, but whoever is defending on ball must consistently pursue the ball to ensure they can at least disrupt the Pelicans’ mid-range looks.