With 82 games now officially in the books, the Lakers remain in search of one more win if they hope to make some noise in the postseason.
Following their 128-117 victory over the Jazz on Sunday, the team secured both the 7th seed and homecourt for their play-in matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night. The winner of that game will move on to face the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round.
The Timberwolves took care of business against the Pelicans to settle into the 8th spot but their win didn't come without some hoopla. During the contest, Rudy Gobert threw a punch at teammate Kyle Anderson, after a verbal spat between the two transpired during a timeout. Then in a separate incident, the team’s defensive Swiss Army Knife, Jaden McDaniels, fractured his hand after punching a wall while heading into the locker room.
In short, woof.
With McDaniels likely missing an extended period of time, and the statuses of Gobert and Anderson still up in the air, there remains some uncertainty in what version of the Timberwolves the Lakers will actually face.
The teams do have experience with one and other as they’ve played each other three times this season with Minnesota winning the series 2-1. However, it’s worth pointing out how different both teams now are heading into Tuesday.
For one, these were the starting lineups the Lakers trotted out in the first two matchups:
Not only did the Lakers not have both of LeBron James and Anthony Davis available in their earlier contests against Minnesota, but starters like Patrick Beverley and Damian Jones aren't even still on the team.
The Timberwolves have also gone through a makeover since then, namely in the backcourt, as they swapped out now Laker D’Angelo Russell in favor of Mike Conley.
In their most recent contest which featured both team’s new looks, the Lakers prevailed 123-111 following a second half comeback.
To help get a better vantage point of the Timberwolves, I spoke to resident Wolves’ observer and hoops aficionado, Anthony Williams (aka @anpherknee) about the three things Lakers’ fans should look for in the opposition ahead of the game.
The Timberwolves go as their veterans go
When the Timberwolves pushed in all their chips for Gobert this past offseason, they did so with their sights clearly on the short-term. Because of this, their roster construction has skewed more towards veterans outside of the likes of Anthony Edwards and others.
How the team’s elder statesmen perform against the Lakers may determine the result according to Williams.
“For all the individual brilliance we see on a near nightly basis from Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves’ successes game to game largely hinge on what version of Kyle Anderson and Taurean Prince shows up on the floor that night.”
“Minnesota is 30-23 with Taurean Prince in the lineup on the season, and his extended absence earlier in the year was a major reason as to why they were so up and down. Kyle Anderson, who has been the connective tissue for the Timberwolves on both sides of the ball, performs much better in wins. He is shooting nearly seven percent better from the 3-point line than in losses, and averaging nearly an assist and a steal more per contest.”
It’s worth noting that Prince and Anderson have individually burned the Lakers in the team’s previous matchups. Specifically due to the attention the likes of Edwards and Towns garner on the floor. The veteran duo serve as both beneficiaries of their young teammates’ gravity, but also, are important release valves through their savviness.
“In addition to being the proverbial adults in the room, the tactical value in both Anderson and Prince’s presence is their role as the team’s go-to secondary creators in support of Edwards and Towns, who have shown to be less than steady decision makers.”
“Prince and Anderson’s ability to catch and shoot as well as attack closeouts will likely be a deciding factor that can swing the contest in either team’s favor. Although they are both capable decision makers and finishers, they also both teeter on the line of volatility in these situations. Prince sometimes is overzealous in his forays to the basket, and Anderson’s inconsistent finishing around the rim was perfectly encapsulated in his recent woeful over the backboard attempt at a game-winner.”
Anthony Davis vs. Karl-Anthony Towns
While the likes of James and Edwards will undoubtedly leave their fingerprints on Tuesday’s contest, the victor of the front-court battle between Davis and Towns may decide the winner.
Through their immense talents both players have helped lead a generation of multifaceted bigs in their own ways. That said, as much as they have both dazzled, they have also polarized through their varying degrees of inconsistency.
“For Davis, while he has largely proven himself a more than capable playoff performer with the jewelry as proof (the bubble ring is still a ring - I don’t want to HEAR IT), there are still lingering questions about his aggression and ‘want to’ from game to game,” Williams said.
“In Towns’ case, his critics have questioned his ability to lead and win on the biggest stages. His best chance to prove doubters wrong came in his team’s play-in game last year where he was unable to stay on the floor due to foul trouble. This was a feat he repeated in the team’s pivotal Game 3 loss to the Grizzlies, a contest in which the Timberwolves lost multiple 20 point leads.”
Towns’ foul-trouble also played a role in the Lakers’ recent second-half comeback win over the Timberwolves.
While Davis’ inconsistency has stemmed more from a lack of aggression, Towns’ issues have been rooted more in his overexertion. The big that can best adjust both schematically and mentally to these reoccurring variables may be the deciding factor according to Williams.
“The blueprint to try and disengage both big men is relatively similar, particularly on the offensive end — send a lot of attention their way and congest the areas in which they have to operate. Davis often becomes more deferential in these scenarios, and Towns becomes overly aggressive, leading to the aforementioned foul trouble.”
The clutch battle
Like in most high-pressure games, the team that best executes their gameplan down the stretch typically is the one who prevails.
In the case of the Lakers and Timberwolves, crunch time is an area where both teams have had many chances to prove their mettle but have each yielded mixed results.
As pointed out by Williams, the Lakers and Timberwolves both finished the season in the top 10 in “clutch” (when the scoring margin is within 5 points with five or fewer minutes remaining) games played.
In terms of the raw numbers, Minnesota looks to have an edge over Los Angeles when it comes to how each have fared in these settings. However, their results may be a bit misleading according to Williams.
“Even though the Timberwolves finished second in the league in clutch wins (28), they are not the fearsome opponent in late game situations as their rank suggests. Despite the large number of wins, the team was only 15th in clutch net rating and posted a punchless offensive rating of just 103.9, which was 25th in the NBA.”
An Achilles heel of the team’s struggles late has been due to their inability to take care of the ball. One of Timberwolves’ biggest culprits in this has come courtesy of their blossoming 21-year-old star.
“The Timberwolves being 26th when it comes to TOV% in the clutch has been fueled by the continued growing pains of Edwards, who is 3rd in the league in clutch time turnovers, with 18 on the season to just 11 assists.”
Despite their woeful 2-10 start that saw the team routinely crumble in the clutch, the Lakers have actually performed better in late-game scenarios than might be assumed.
As Williams points out, the Lakers have the 3rd best clutch offensive rating and the lowest clutch TOV% in the league at 5.4% Both important areas the team can hang their hat on in terms of this upcoming matchup and potentially beyond.
“Although the Timberwolves have had their successes in the win column in clutch situations, they will give their opponents plenty of opportunities to both stay in, and take control of a game in the final moments. And the Lakers appear well-suited to be able to capitalize should the opportunity arise.”
Stats and injury notes
- Beyond the Timberwolves already being without McDaniels and Gobert, the team will also not have the services of breakout big man, Naz Reid on Tuesday. Reid fractured his wrist in a game against the Suns back in March and is out indefinitely.
- Dennis Schröder’s status remains up in the air as the point-guard missed his second consecutive game on Sunday. After being ruled out with “extreme neck soreness” against the Suns, Schröder remained out in the team’s final regular season game with “right Achilles soreness.”
- Foul trouble: Minnesota has ranked 28th in opponent free-throw rate since the trade deadline. This could prove costly as the Lakers have had the 3rd highest free-throw rate in the league during that span according to Cleaning the Glass.
- Watch out for Moreyball: Since Conley’s arrival, the Timberwolves have the 4th highest shot frequency at the rim (36.2%) and are shooting 39.1% from behind the arc (4th best).
- Crash the glass: Despite a jumbo front court, the Timberwolves are allowing the 17th highest offensive-rebound rate to the opposition since their roster makeover. The Lakers have excelled in second chance opportunities with the 9th best offensive-rebound rate and 9th most putbacks per 100 missed shots in that same span.
The Lakers and Timberwolves will tip off at 7:00 p.m. PT. The game will be televised nationally on TNT.
You can find more of Anthony’s work on his YouTube channel, and you can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.