While the Lakers have clearly shown dramatic improvement over the last 20 games, Monday night’s loss against the Nuggets in Denver revealed that the Lakers are still a poor defensive team, particularly against more athletic opponents. Luckily for the Lakers, tonight’s opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, are not nearly as athletic a team as the Nuggets and serve as a better matchup for the Lakers. Games such as tonight against sub .500 teams are must wins for the Lakers at this point; they must come out with a renewed sense of energy and focus after getting run out of the gym in Denver.
Perhaps no team in the NBA has suffered more from injuries than the Timberwolves this year. Franchise player and Olympian Kevin Love has missed all but 18 games this season due to injury. Love averaged 26 points and 13.3 rebounds last season, and having him out of the lineup most of the season has put a damper on the team’s playoff hopes. Their other building block in point guard Ricky Rubio missed the first 35 games of the year, and until recently had struggled to regain his peak form that he exhibited in his rookie season last year. The T’Wolves have had players in and out of the lineup all year, and even their head coach Rick Adelman missed 11 games in order to deal with his wife’s illness.
Frontcourt: Second year pro Derrick Williams starts at power forward in Love’s absence. Williams was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, but has struggled somewhat with adapting to the pro game. Williams possesses many traits of the new hybrid power forwards in the league in that he can shoot it from beyond the arc and also has the athleticism to play on the perimeter. He has struggled with his efficiency thus far, part of which probably has to do with playing inconsistent minutes behind Love. However, this past month, Williams averaged 14.3 points and 8.2 rebounds a night in a starting role. It’s clear Williams has a bright future in the NBA, it is just unclear of whether it will be in Minnesota or elsewhere.
Center Nikola Pekovic is the team’s second leading scorer at 16 points per game. Pekovic is a bruising center who is one of the strongest players in the league. Pekovic’s game is played below the rim since he lacks quickness and hops. He is a tremendously efficient player both from the field and at the free-throw line, and does an excellent job finishing in traffic despite his limited athleticism. He uses his 290 pound body very well to draw contact. Dwight Howard must use his athleticism to his advantage against Pekovic and face him up to take him off the dribble when he catches it on the low block.
Backcourt: Ricky Rubio, the second year pro out of Spain, is one of the most exciting players to watch in the league. He has truly special court vision and is one of the best passers in the game today. He struggled mightily to begin the season after coming off of a torn ACL, but he too had an excellent February, averaging 12.8 points, 9.2 assists, and nearly three steals per game. Rubio is a very underrated defender both on and off the ball, as he has great anticipation that leads to many deflections and steals. The weak point in his game is his jump shot, which is practically non-existent. He is shooting only 33% from the floor on the season. The Lakers must go under all on-ball screens for Rubio and force him to shoot jumpers.
Luke Ridnour starts at the other guard position, and he remains as solid as ever. Ridnour, in his tenth season, is a pure point guard who just happens to start along with Rubio because of the team’s lack of depth at the two guard position. He is a heady playmaker that has a high basketball IQ and reliable outside shot. He comes in averaging 12.2 points and 3.9 assists per game. Ridnour is undersized at 6’2” so the Lakers must find a way to exploit him down on the block. He will likely be put on Metta World Peace or Kobe Bryant to start the game. Whoever he ends up guarding needs to post him up and exploit the size mismatch.
Keys to Victory:
Contain Dribble Penetration: To say that dribble penetration killed the Lakers against the Nuggets would be an understatement. The Lakers gave up 78 points in the paint in Denver. While the T’Wolves do not have Denver’s athleticism, they do have a trio of guards – Rubio, Ridnour and Barea – that could potentially get in the paint and wreak havoc. These three are all capable of creating open looks for others, as the team does not have a true go to scorer with Love out of the lineup. Containing the penetration of these players will be key to a victory.
Cut Down Turnovers: While the Lakers’ 15 turnovers (their season average) against the Nuggets doesn’t seem too bad on paper, these turnovers led to easy run outs and transitions baskets for Denver. If the Lakers can avoid these costly turnovers that lead to easy fast break opportunities, they should be able to beat the T’Wolves. The Lakers must avoid these turnovers early in the game as well and come out with focus against a struggling opponent. Tonight is a must-win, especially at home against a below average opponent.
Minnesota Timberwolves (20-34) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (28-30)
7:30 PM PST, February 28, 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
CA TV: TNT, TWCSN
Timberwolves Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Luke Ridnour
SF: Mickael Gelabale
PF: Derrick Williams
C: Nikola Pekovic
Key Reserves: G J.J. Barea, G Alexey Shved, F Dante Cunningham