9:30 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Timberwolves-4.5, Over/Under: 219.5
With the end of the Regular Season in sight, there is admittedly little left to play for many teams, including tonight’s combatants, as the Minnesota Timberwolves travel to STAPLES Center to meet the Los Angeles Lakers, in a meeting between teams with eyes squarely fixated on the future. Rebuilding is a difficult process to master, and one that most franchises would prefer to avoid altogether, but for most it is inevitable, as both of these teams have found. With that said, the Timberwolves (31-48, 12th in Western Conference) are decisively further along than their opponent tonight, thanks in large part to the maturation of their prized collection of young talent. After years of mediocrity, Minnesota has struck gold in the Draft, selecting the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns (24.9 PTS, 53.7% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 12.1 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.3 BLK) and Zach LaVine (18.9 PTS, 45.9% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 3.4 REB 3.0 AST ), while trading for former No. One Overall Selection Andrew Wiggins (23.5 PTS, 45.3% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.0 STL) all within the span of two years, creating a foundation that has left many of their counterparts envious of their young nucleus. So is it any wonder that Management sought out the services of Tom Thibodeau, who ended his successful stay in Chicago, in search of a new project (and more personnel control). The former Coach of the Year is well respected around the league, and has brought some sorely-needed structure to a franchise that quite frankly hasn’t had much at all over the past decade. Their fourth Head Coach in as many years, Thibodeau has already improved upon his predecessor’s mark, even though progress in the rugged Western Conference has proven very hard to come by; as frequently as they’ve flashed their potential, the young Wolves have apparently hit the wall, losing ten out of their last thirteen contests, dropping them to Twelfth in the conference. While they clearly miss LaVine, who underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL back in early February, this is a unit that has shown the telltale signs of mental fatigue; over their last thirteen outings, six of their ten losses have been by at least eleven points. Friday Night’s 120-113 defeat at Utah was a bit closer than their recent results, but unfortunately for Thibodeau the outcome was all-too familiar; result aside, the visitors once again completely collapsed on the defensive end of the court, allowing the Jazz to shoot a scorching 60.0% from the field, including 14-of-25 from beyond the arc (56.0%), assisting on twenty-nine of their forty-five field goals, with Gordon Hayward in particular taking them to task with thirty-nine points. The aforementioned Towns led his team with thirty-two points on 12-of-21 shooting (57.1%), including 3-of-5 from downtown (60.0%), thirteen rebounds, a pair of assists, and a steal, while Wiggins and Ricky Rubio (11.2 PTS, 40.8% FG, 4.1 REB, 9.1 AST, 1.7 STL) added twenty-five and twenty-six points respectively. However, there wasn’t much else for Minnesota to hang their hat on, as the rest of the team accounted for just thirty points, which has been an issue all year, and only compounded by LaVine’s absence. Outside of the Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, and Rubio, there are only two Timberwolves averaging over 6.2 points per game, with only one of them a member of the Bench. But nothing has held these guys back more than their lack of focus on the defensive end, which must drive Thibodeau nuts; the defensive tactician has seen his young charges yield 106.5 points (19th Overall) on 47.6% shooting from the field (28th Overall), including 52.7% from within the three-point arc (29th Overall), and 36.8% beyond it (25th Overall), which is pretty remarkable when you consider the athleticism they possess. Communication and discipline are paramount on defense, which is why so many younger teams struggle in that regard. Again, this was the case when Minnesota last met Los Angeles; despite defeating them in their previous two meetings, they allowed one of the worst teams in the league who just so happened to be in full tank mode to shoot 52.3% from the field, including 14-of-23 from three (60.9%), and dish out twenty-six assists. Furthermore, Los Angeles’ Bench buried Minnesota’s, outscoring them 39-23.
Meanwhile, the Lakers (24-55, 13th in Western Conference) would love to be further along in their own rebuilding process, as they have little choice but to lose as many games as possible lest their precious project be cast into limbo for the foreseeable future. You see, Los Angeles has every incentive to lose as many games as possible, thanks to an ill-fated trade made years ago that will cost them their own First Round Pick this year if their selection happens to fall out of the top three. Compounding matters is the fact that they also stand to lose their First Rounder in the 2019 Draft as well, meaning that no team will be sweating through the Draft Lottery more than these guys. Oh, and in case you were wondering, they currently own the third-worst record in the league. Talk about cutting it close, huh? Anyways, since the mammoth upheaval in their Front Office resulted in a shift in ownership, Hall of Famer Magic Johnson becoming their new Vice President of Basketball Operations and former super agent extraordinaire Rob Pelinka as their new General Manager, the Lakers have tried their best to not only lose, but lose with dignity. After all, you don’t want to give everyone the impression that you’re actually trying to lose games. Cynicism aside, Luke Walton’s young charges lost sixteen out of eighteen contests following the All-Star Break, while Johnson and Pelinka sent their leading scorer, Lou Williams (18.6 PTS, 44.4% FG, 38.6% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.1 STL) packing to Houston for the Rockets’ First Round Pick in June’s Draft. Additionally, Management went a step further, shutting down the likes of both Luol Deng (7.6 PTS, 38.7% FG, 5.3 REB, 1.3 AST) and Timofey Mozgov (7.4 PTS, 51.5% FG, 4.9 REB), whom the previous regime signed to obscenely lucrative contracts last summer, while limiting other veteran’s minutes in a painfully obvious bid to lose in the present with the hopes of future gain. However, something funny has happened over the last week that could threaten t derail their carefully laid plans altogether…. these young guys are winning games. That’s right, the Lakers have won three consecutive affairs for the first time since early November, besting the likes of Memphis (108-103), San Antonio (102-95), and most recently Sacramento (98-94), providing a glimpse hope for a fan base that has seen four straight non-playoff campaigns for the first time in franchise history. After falling behind 31-18 in the first Quarter Friday Night, Los Angeles got better as the game continued, outscoring the Kings 26-14 in the Second Quarter, and 29-254 in the final frame of action. It was a relatively poor shooting night for the home side, who managed to knock down just 44.2% of their attempts, including 4-of-24 three-pointers (16.7%), but they harassed their northern neighbors throughout the tilt, forcing twenty-three turnovers, leading to a wealth of opportunities in transition. Third-year Forward Julius Randle (13.2 PTS, 48.4% FG, 8.7 REB, 3.6 AST) had himself a game, scoring twenty-five points on 10-of-14 shooting (71.4%), while totaling six rebounds, and a pair of assists, while the other members of their young nucleus, Jordan Clarkson (14.6 PTS, 44.2% FG, 3.0 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.1 STL), D’Angelo Russell (15.6 PTS, 40.7% FG, 35.4% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.4 STL), and Brandon Ingram (9.3 PTS, 40.7% FG, 4.0 REB, 2.0 AST) combined for another thirty-nine points. Walton must be happy to see some growth out of this group, even if it does threaten their chances of retaining their Draft Pick, for over the course of the season, they’ve been about inconsistent one could imagine; on the offensive end of the floor, they struggle to shoot the ball well at all (44.9% FG, 49.2% 2FG, 34.7% 3FG) because they are one of the worst in the league at sharing it, ranking twenty-sixth in assists (20.8), while committing 15.1 turnovers (25th Overall), and on the defensive end they’ve been downright embarrassing at times, permitting a dreadful 111.7 points (28th Overall) on a league-worst 48.3% shooting (30th Overall), including 53.5% from inside the arc (30th Overall) and 37.2% beyond it (27th Overall), and 25.7 assists (30th Overall).