The Lakers' worst performance of the season so far came 10 days ago at Staples Center against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Yeah, it went into the books as a victory. But a five-point home W against one of the lowliest squads in the NBA says worse things about a team than does a narrow loss to either the Denver Nuggets or the Phoenix Suns. Undisguised boredom on the champs' part led to 48 minutes of astonishing laziness. Obviously they didn't give a crap, and there was no point when it felt like the Wolves could actually spring the upset, but one hopes the Lakers will show a bit more vivacity in the teams' rematch at Target Center tonight.
With road triumphs against the Bucks and Pistons, the Lakers have begun to put their two-game slump in the rearview mirror. Tonight's contest wraps up their Midwest trip, after which they head home to face Golden State and Chicago. The strong expectation is that they'll do so with a three-game winning streak in their carry-ons.
It won't be as childishly simple as we might've imagined not so long ago. The Wolves look like they've started to get their footing a little bit. Since falling to the Lakers they've won three of five. Granted, the teams they've beaten (Sacramento, New York and the Clippers) are nothing special, but it's the Wolves we're talking about here. Their first order of business was losing the "worst team in the NBA" tag, which they've managed to do with a little help from the 1-12 Clips. And they're above 0.500 at home! Baby steps, people.
The key to their recent improvement has been the tasty play of Michael Beasley and Kevin Love. La Beez has scored 25 points in five consecutive games while shooting efficiently in all of them. Against the Clips on Wednesday he hit a jumper with 2.3 seconds left to seal Wolves' victory. Our sister site Canis Hoopus has been celebrating Beasley's emergence as the franchise's "first ever Alpha Wolf." He presents a nice challenge for Ron Artest.
As for Love, you know what he's been getting up to. Just three days after pulling down 24 rebounds against the Lakers, he blew everyone's minds with the league's first 30-30 game since Moses's era. Only Toronto's Reggie Evans is his equal as a rebounder right now. Many opposing bigs tower over Love, and as a result he has trouble converting inside, but his overall scoring efficiency is decent because he can get to the line, make free throws and drop in the occasional three-ball. If the Lakers once again approach the Wolves with gross indifference, Love will happily get himself another 20 boards.
Minnesota has improved its Offensive Rating in six straight games. The D, however, hasn't been matching that progress, as in the past three games they've allowed Atlanta, Charlotte and (yikes) the Clippers to score over 1.10 points per possession. That's not a promising trend when you're about to face the best offense on the planet. Weirdly, though, when the two teams met before, the Lakers barely scraped together even a single point per possession. It's the only off-night the Laker offense has had this year.
I don't expect a rerun of that show. The Laker attack is rolling right now and should be able to do what it wants against Minny. The Wolves don't have answers for Kobe, Pau or Lamar. They're below average in every defensive statistic and way below average in many of them. For the Lakers, a game like this is simply about focus and energy. If they arrive with a sense of purpose like they did against a Detroit, they'll put up a big number in the first half and have the luxury of resting their starters in the fourth.
Something to keep an eye on tonight is Minnesota's work on the offensive glass. As a team they have the sixth best offensive rebounding rate in the NBA, and the Lakers have just been dreadful on the defensive glass. If the Wolves keep this close, it'll be due to their second-chance points. The Lakers catch a tiny break on this front in that Nikola Pekovic, one of Minny's best offensive rebounders, will miss the game because of injury.
A few other health notes and roster updates from the Minnesota camp:
- Luke Ridnour has returned to action after recovering from a hamstring injury. He didn't play in the teams' first meeting.
- Jonny Flynn (hip) and Martell Webster (back) have not yet played this season and won't tonight.
- Sebastian Telfair is playing through plantar fasciitis.
- Wayne Ellington is limited because of a sore thigh.
- Maurice Ager, whom you may remember as the guy who sank a half-court shot at the halftime buzzer at Staples, has been waived and replaced on the roster by Sundiata Gaines.
The Lakers are 9½-point faves. Tip-off is at 5:00 p.m. Pacific time, so don't you dawdle at work. If you have a spare moment before then, head on over to Canis Hoopus to see how the other half lives (but please be cool if you do). They do a nice job.