The Minnesota Timberwolves definitely have a reason to smile now that dynamic point man Ricky Rubio has come back. Unfortunately, due to team management's decision to play it conservative with his knee, it has been reported that Rubio will not be active in Miami tonight.
This leaves Minnesota without its best playmaker against the defending champions, and also makes the game an uphill battle from the get-go.
Miami is currently atop the Southeast Division and ranked second in the Eastern Conference. They have won three of four and look to continue their winning ways tonight.
Minnesota will not make it easy for them, as they have fought through a multitude of injuries to the No. 6 spot in the highly competitive Western Conference.
Kevin Love will need to be at his best tonight, as he could very well be the key to the Timberwolves pulling off an amazing upset in South Beach.
Time: Tuesday, December 18th, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: NBATV, Sun Sports, Fox Sports North
Records: Minnesota Timberwolves (12-10) vs. Miami Heat (15-6)
Injuries: Ricky Rubio (knee), Brandon Roy (knee), Josh Howard (knee), Malcolm Lee (knee), Chase Budinger (knee)
Key Storyline: Can Minnesota Pull Off the Upset Without Rubio?
Minnesota will be at a great disadvantage heading into tonight's game Rubio does indeed sit this one out. Without the star Spaniard, the Miami Heat become even harder to stop on both ends of the floor.
That isn't to say that the Timberwolves are sunk just because Rubio isn't playing. The team has overcome injuries all season long, and has the talent to follow in the Golden State Warriors' footsteps to upend Miami.
Rubio or no Rubio, Minnesota's depth is incredible, from bruising center Nikola Pekovic all the way down to diminutive guard J.J. Barea.
If the Timberwolves share the ball, limit their turnovers and execute Rick Adelman's game plan, there's no reason to think this game won't be competitive.
Key Matchup: Nikola Pekovic vs. Chris Bosh
Miami has six losses on the season, and four of them have come against teams with elite centers. Chris Bosh is handling the center duties well on offense, but the wiry big man is a true power forward.
Bosh does have the length to play the 5, but lacks the strength to keep the bigger centers in the league out of the paint.
Minnesota's center, Nikola Pekovic, is the exact opposite. At 6'11", 290 pounds, he works almost exclusively in the post.
His defensive prowess could cause fits for his counterpart, though he lacks the quickness to stay with Bosh should he put the ball on the floor or float around the perimeter.
X-Factor: Udonis Haslem
Miami has really struggled on defense this season, ranking 29th in the league in rebounding and 18th in points allowed. Minnesota ranks fourth and sixth in those categories, respectively, and will look to exploit those advantages throughout the game.
With those statistics in mind, it goes without saying that Udonis Haslem must make the most of his time on the court. He only averages 4.2 points and 5.0 rebounds in 18.1 minutes per game, but he is still one of the Heat's top defensive players.
Haslem also happens to be the all-time leading rebounder in Miami Heat history, having passed Alonzo Mourning earlier this season. Minnesota does quite well in this department thanks to Love and Pekovic, which means that Haslem must be ready to do work on the glass.
Haslem does not have to out-rebound either player, but will have to effectively box out and limit their opportunities whenever he's in the game.
The presumed lack of Ricky Rubio's sharp defense and playmaking ability will leave the Timberwolves at a significant disadvantage that Rick Adelman will not be able to overcome.
The game will be close at some points, but Miami will ride home-court advantage all the way to victory while young Minnesota just watches from the sidelines. LeBron James will have another phenomenal evening as he continues his quest for a second consecutive MVP trophy, and shooters Ray Allen and Shane Battier will nail some clutch threes.
Who will win?
Chris Bosh may not have the best of nights, thanks to Nikola Pekovic having better skills under the basket, but his use of his jumper will definitely give the Heat an advantage on offense. Haslem won't get much playing time but will do enough in his time on the court that he will have definitely made a difference in the end result.
However, one thing will definitely be certain by the final buzzer. Even in victory, Miami will know that they just played a tough opponent, one that is capable of making a lot of noise over the rest of the season.
They will realize that when it comes time to visit Minnesota on March 4, they will need to be better prepared if they want their potential win to be a big one.
Miami Heat 106, Minnesota Timberwolves 99
All statistics in this article are accurate as of December 17, 2012