The Los Angeles road trip has claimed countless visitors over the years. When NBA teams play both the Lakers and Clippers and have time to indulge in the many, uh, experiences the City of Angels has to offer, they typically drop at least one of the two in sloppy fashion.
That was not the case for the Minnesota Timberwolves this week, though. Three days after a massive win over the Clippers, the Wolves took down the Lakers 110-102 Friday night to complete the “Staples Sweep” (no, we’re not acknowledging Crypto.com Arena).
Minnesota largely has Mike Conley to thank for the latter victory. The Wolves’ new point guard hit a three and a righty floater in the final 1:13 to stave off a Minnesota collapse that nearly saw a 14-point fourth-quarter lead squandered. This was the exact kind of situation the Wolves acquired Conley for; the 16-year veteran was not cowed by a few misses of his own during Minnesota’s nervy spell.
Conley’s stats on the night weren’t eye-popping (14 points, six rebounds, three assists), but he saved his best for when the Wolves needed it most. It was also a good sign that he started to lock in that patented off-hand floater. It helped him secure some much-needed buckets with Anthony Edwards quiet outside of a five-for-eight mark from the 3-point line.
Even with star power absent as both LeBron James (foot) and Karl-Anthony Towns (calf) sat out due to injuries, the night offered a big-time matchup — emphasis on big. Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis took turns gaining the upper hand on the other, making for riveting play.
In the first quarter it was Davis taking the edge, scoring 16 points and sending Gobert to the bench early with two fouls. When Gobert returned in the second frame, though, he brought the energy on both ends, finishing strong around the basket and contesting enough of Davis’ shots to cool him down.
Gobert’s success against Davis continued until he picked up two more fouls midway through the third quarter. Davis feasted in the paint with the Stifle Tower off the floor, scoring repeatedly at the bucket on Naz Reid and other hapless Minnesota defenders to keep the Lakers in striking distance.
Gobert didn’t affect Davis’ rhythm much in the fourth quarter, but he got in some punches of his own by scoring at the rim and clearing the glass. In the end, Davis held the upper hand in scoring with 38 points, but Gobert scored 22 of his own and added 14 rebounds in the win.
Another key was the production Minnesota got from its reserves — the Wolves’ bench outscored the Lakers’ 38-27. Reid was great when he wasn’t getting abused by Davis, finishing with 15 points and eight rebounds.
Taurean Prince provided his typical all-around activity with a 13-4-4 line, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker continued to flash impressive shooting and defensive intensity. Reid, Prince and NAW scored as many fast break points as the entire Lakers team, an area where Minnesota held a 26-10 advantage on the night.
Chris Finch notably shaved his rotation down to nine players with Jaylen Nowell out and Austin Rivers receiving a DNP-CD. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the final month-and-a-half of the season, especially in the event that Towns makes his return.
This win was critical for the Wolves in the jumbled battle for playoff seeding in the Western Conference. Not only does it put them in the No. 7 seed, a half-game ahead of the Clippers, it gives them a 2.5-game edge and the head-to-head advantage against the 11th-place Lakers. They’ll hold that tiebreaker regardless of the outcome of their March 31 rematch.
Still, Minnesota obviously has a long way to go. Its matchup with the Kings in Sacramento Saturday is the first of five straight against teams currently with winning records, and the month doesn’t get much easier from there. On this night, though, the Wolves got the job done.