With the eighth seed in the Western Conference appearing in the Lakers sight as crunch time and the playoffs near, the Lakers needed to get in gear and take advantage of their back to back home stand starting against Minnesota on Thursday night.
For Los Angeles, who have taken ownership of the longest win streak over an opponent in the NBA with 20 straight wins over the Minnesota Timberwolves, a must win situation suddenly became a hard to lose one. The 20-34 Timberwolves, who entered the game with only seven road game wins on the season, traveled to Staples Center to battle a playoff hungry Kobe Bryant and crew just after L.A. dropped an uninspiring game in Denver.
Despite the absence of key figures for the purple and gold such as Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill, Minnesota found themselves without All-Star Kevin Love, who is still recovering from a fractured right hand. Ricky Rubio still posed a threat, however, as the 22 year old speedy point guard found himself back on the court after a long absence with a torn ACL the previous season.
The Lakers need to open up the game versus Minnesota the exact same way they did the last time these two means met up. The Lakers, who scored 37 points in the first quarter alone, couldn’t miss, and only allowed 24 points against them in the same fraction of time. In the second half of the season, in all honesty, the Lakers biggest enemy wasn’t going to be found in the opposing locker room. The biggest threat on the floor Thursday wasn’t in a Timberwolves jersey. L.A. needs to snap their bad habits and improve on important things that they’re clearly ignoring, including transition defense and free throws, otherwise they’ll be the reasoning behind their own downfall.
Kobe Bryant had no issue testing the Timberwolves’ defense early, blasting by two defenders to smash home and impressive dunk. Steve Nash joined the party, dropping a three with a hand in his face to bring the Lakers lead to six. The Lakers defense looked active and alert in the duration of the first quarter, but Minnesota continued to pose a threat. Being a poor three point shooting team in the past, the Timberwolves were putting down from beyond the arc, keeping the game competitive.
Bryant and Nash continued to slaughter Minnesota’s defense from the back court, as the two combined for 18 points in the first quarter. Jodie Meeks received a few good looks from three-point land, as well, but was unsuccessful on numerous attempts, shooting 0-2 from the field.
A 12-2 run by Minnesota suddenly made what looked like a one sided game toward the hosts tied with three minutes remaining at 18. Nikola Pekovic pulled together eight points for the visitors in the quarter, and continued to be fed the ball at the post with no real pressure from L.A.’s defense. The run was finally snapped by Antawn Jamison, who hit a 25-foot three-pointer off of a dish from Bryant.
The final few points of the quarter were all off of Bryant, and the Lakers finished up the first 12 minutes of the game with somewhat of a lead, ahead of Minnesota 28-22.
Steve Blake impressed as soon as the quarter started, holding the ball for just the right amount of time before Dwight Howard opened up in the post. The quick pass to the big man enabled Blake to get an easy assist, and Dwight to put away another two points. Metta World Peace hit his fist basket of the day from beyond the arc, making his personal total from the three since All-Star weekend a poor 6-18.
The turnovers continued to be nightmares for L.A., who blew a nine point lead after a timeout after foolishly giving the ball away in dire situations. J.J. Barea was the key play maker in this run for Minnesota, as he both scored and dished the ball to help cut the lead to only two. Ricky Rubio came alive from the point guard position with just under half of the quarter remaining, displaying speed and energy with ball distribution to re-energize a slacking Timberwolves roster.
Kobe Bryant was putting on a finishing clinic like it was 1999 in the second quarter, embarrassing Minnesota’s defense in the paint with huge dunks and layups. At one point, he was able to miss a dunk, stand under the basket to wait for the ball to come back down, grab it back and put up the easy layup. Earl Clark, who didn’t take a single shot in the first 22 minutes of the half, displayed unselfish basketball with the amount of assists he tallied up. At one point he had the open look, bud decided to feed it to an open Howard down low instead, resulting in another two points.
Clark demonstrated defensive maturity with under a minute to play, as he stayed on full court pressure and took the back from Rubio as soon as Minnesota brought the ball in bounds. He got the steal, allowed Kobe to grab it, and sat back and watching Bryant throw down another impressive dunk. Bryant put away the last basket of the half with a three-pointer off of a dish from Nash, and L.A. entered the locker room at the half up 10, 57-47.
Ricky Rubio got the ball rolling for Minnesota to start off the half, executing back to back driving layups to try to compete with Kobe Bryant’s shooting. Bryant, however, hit back to back three-pointers off of Nash passes, inching the Lakers farther and farther ahead. Without taking a look at the score, the Timberwolves looked as if they were neck and neck with L.A. in the opening minutes of the half, even executing a stellar alley-oop from Luke Ridnour to Derrick Williams.
The Lakers were excelling with offensive rebounds and second chance baskets as the game continued, boosting themselves ahead 15 points with improved basketball. Rebounding was a key issue in the match up against Denver in the previous game, so seeing an improvement almost automatically is a good sign as playoffs inch closer and closer. Antawn Jamison reached double digits in scoring off of a feed from Kobe Bryant at the baseline, which he turned around for the layup to bring his total up to 11 off of 5-6 shooting.
Jodie Meeks’ three-pointer with just under two minutes left in the quarter was number 14 for Lakers in the competition, a drastic difference from Minnesota’s unimpressive five from beyond the arc. Kobe Bryant gave the ball away with 20 seconds remaining, which J.J. Barea capitalized on with a three-pointer. Bryant had the last laugh of the quarter with a jumper from the top of the key, and the Lakers went into the final quarter of the game ahead 91-75.
Jodie Meeks hit another three for the Lakers as soon as the quarter began, bringing L.A.’s total to a huge 16. The Lakers had momentum in their favor, and suddenly found themselves ahead 21 points after five minutes. Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison and Steve Blake continued to make everything look really, all hitting double digits in scoring and running with it as a win became more and more likely.
L.A. found themselves dominant in points in the paint, and the huge impact from the trio off of the bench took a lot of pressure off of the starters – a thing necessary moving forward to keep a healthy roster. Entering the final quarter with 33 points, Kobe Bryant enjoyed the final quarter of the game from the sidelines, watching Steve Blake continue to prove his importance as the number two point guard with an equal amount of ball distribution and executed baskets.
Dwight Howard swatted away his fourth block of the night up against Greg Stiemsma, denying his eight foot jumper attempt to force a turnover in the Lakers favor. J.J. Barea, who had 20 points on the night, was unable to salvage a win for the battered and bruised Timberwolves, who were unable to make amends for the numerous injuries they’ve sustained. A huge performance from both the bench and big name starters closed out an easy win for the Lakers, who finished up the game at Staples 116-94 versus Minnesota.