In another less-than-desirable match-up for the good people of TNT, the underachieving and injury-riddled Minnesota T-Wolves head to Los Angeles to take on Kobe, Dwight, and the Lakers. Before the season began, this would’ve been a highly anticipated match-up, as both teams had buzz, and LA had real title aspirations. Now that the dust has settled a bit, however, Los Angeles is scratching and clawing for a playoff spot while the T-Wolves are reduced to the always-entertaining spoiler role.
Let’s take a look at what to expect on the court.
Los Angeles Offense vs. Minnesota Defense
With all of the scrutiny surrounding the Lakers, this is actually a pretty efficient offensive team. They are scoring at a rate of 105.3 points per 100 possessions (good for 8th in the league), and they are also top-8 in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage as a team. On the Minnesota end, no one would have expected that they would defend at a more impressive rate than they would score, but that has happened this season as the T-Wolves have allowed just 102.5 points per 100 (12th in the league).
The big question mark (injury-wise) for Thursday night’s battle is the status of Minnesota’s top defensive player, Andrei Kirilenko. AK47 left Tuesday’s game with Phoenix early with a strained left calf, and his absence would be huge in this one. This is a rare match-up where Dwight Howard can be “neutralized” size-wise by the opponent’s center. Nikola Pekovic is a mountain of a man at 6’11 and 290 lbs. and while he certainly isn’t the athlete that Howard is (even injury-limited Howard), he can battle with him in the paint. It will be very interesting to see what direction Rick Adelman goes in trying to defend Kobe Bryant in this game.
Minnesota has deployed a Ricky Rubio/Luke Ridnour backcourt in the recent past, and while Rubio is a tremendous defender, he is still quite undersized at the shooting guard spot defensively. If Kirilenko is in the lineup, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him on Bryant (with Rubio/Ridnour on Metta World Peace), but without him, Bryant will likely see a steady diet of Mikael Gelabale (yes, really) and Alexey Shved. Yikes.
Minnesota Offense vs. Los Angeles Defense
Here’s where the Lakers’ problems arrive. In recent days, LA has lifted their defensive level (both intensity and performance) and they are now middle-of-the-pack in the league defensively at 103.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. Fortunately, they face off against the offensively-challenged T-Wolves, who enter the game with the 24th-best offense in the league.
Much of Minnesota’s trouble can be traced back to the absence of Kevin Love, and they have struggled all season to find a primary offensive option. The team’s best three players (in Love’s absence) are Ricky Rubio, Kirilenko, and Pekovic, and none of the three can be counted on to put the ball in the basket. Rubio is a gifted passer with one-of-a-kind court vision, but he also doubles as a guy who is shooting 33% from the field (not a misprint) for the season.
With Dwight Howard (presumably) neutralizing Pekovic’s offensive effectiveness, the scoring load will likely fall on former #2 overall pick, Derrick Williams. Williams will have the benefit of a match-up against Earl Clark (for the most part), and he’s been a bright spot for Minnesota, averaging nearly 18 points and 9 rebounds since the All-Star break. Look for Adelman and company to try to take advantage of the Lakers’ backcourt defense (which is awful) and present opportunities for Ridnour and Rubio to create off the dribble. It’s their best (and really, only) chance.
Match-up to Watch - Dwight Howard vs. Nikola Pekovic
This face-off was discussed in each of the offense/defense sections, but it is certainly the best head-to-head battle. For Minnesota to have any chance at stealing a road win, Pekovic needs to win this battle, and do so handily. LA is the better team at the surrounding positions (especially in the backcourt), and Pekovic has been the most consistent offensive player for Minnesota this year.
Howard has taken a step back defensively, and Pekovic has the shear girth to take a physical approach to beating up on Howard in order to see how he responds. Personally, I would bet on this match-up being a virtual draw on the stat sheet, but Minnesota needs an advantage somewhere.
If this game was in Minnesota, it would be much more conceivable to see a win for the T-Wolves. Minnesota is just 7-20 on the road this season, and even if Kirilenko plays, they are a significant underdog against the competent-at-home (18-11 record) Lakers. LA has had two days to get rested after a shellacking in Denver, and they are in desperate need of a win to continue their battle for the 8th and final playoff spot in the West.
Stranger things have happened, but it would be a surprise if Minnesota went on the road and stole this one from a suddenly-determined (and incentivized) Lakers team.