The Los Angeles Lakers have a new attitude that has helped the team win three of four, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are on a mission. The team has lost five games in a row in what is slowly turning into a lost season due to endless injuries, and a victory over the Lakers could bring about a jolt of momentum that sets a tone for change.
It also happens to be the first time the two teams face each other this season, and the rowdy Minnesota fans will be at full volume. This season may not be going according to plan, but that has not stopped 'Wolves fans from cheering on their banged up squad.
Whether or not he plays, the Lakers need to stay focused and stay the course with their new approach. It has turned them into a better team and a stronger unit, and defeating Minnesota will only help keep them on the right path.
Time: Friday, February 1st, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, my29
Records: Los Angeles Lakers (20-26) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (17-25)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, January 31, 11:33 a.m. EST
Injuries: Jordan Hill (hip, out), Pau Gasol (foot, day-to-day), Dwight Howard (shoulder, day-to-day), Brandon Roy (knee, out), Chase Budinger (knee, out), Malcolm Lee (knee, out), Kevin Love (hand, out)
Key Storyline: Can Creaky 'Wolves Best Lakers?
The Minnesota Timberwolves might as well be held together by tape. Star player Kevin Love missed the first month of the season with a broken hand, only to be ineffective in his return before reinjuring it. As a result, plus other key injuries, the team has been subpar for most of the season.
Granted, the Timberwolves have been solid on defense, ranking sixth in rebounding and 13th in points allowed. That is all well and good, but does not take away from the fact that the team has been anemic in the scoring department. There, Minnesota ranks just 22nd.
Seeing as how the Lakers play Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun game, which is all about scoring a lot of points, there is only one way that Minnesota can win this game: lockdown D. Nikola Pekovic needs to be in beast mode in the paint, and Derrick Williams may need to take advantage of his extra playing time, should he get any.
Minnesota also needs to get past the injuries and be completely focused on offense, exploiting the Lakers' weak defense that ranks 26th points allowed. If the chemistry is there on the offensive side and everyone is focused defensively, then Minnesota could easily pull off an upset that leaves the Lakers fans stunned.
Key Matchup: Metta World Peace vs. Andrei Kirilenko
One of the men who has benefited the most from the Lakers' switching to D'Antoni's system is Metta World Peace. After being a disappointment his first three years in Los Angeles, he has broken out as a fine pest and three-point threat this season.
World Peace has averaged 13.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals this season, making 35.5 percent of his attempts from long range. However, the man has recently been in a bad slump.
In January, World Peace posted 13.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals while making 34 percent of his threes. Unfortunately, he shot just 38.5 percent from the field.
The man is going to need to have a much better game against Minnesota, fighting past the Timberwolves' defense to sink key shots and maybe even rise up for a dunk. Of course, that's going to be extremely tough with the pesky Andrei Kirilenko guarding him.
Kirilenko's return to the NBA has been excellent after spending last season playing in Russia. He has adjusted to his role in Minnesota perfectly, doing just what he has to do on both ends of the floor. Team management expects him to be a swingman, not a star, and Kirilenko plays that part well.
On the season, Kirilenko is averaging 13.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals, and is also shooting 51 percent from the field. Apart from taking World Peace's three-point game out of commission, he must also be a force on offense.
As good a defender as World Peace is, he is not as dominant a pest as he was in his younger days. At age 33, his step has lost some of its bounce.
Kirilenko needs to take full advantage of this and drive the lane against a weak Lakers' defense, be it rising up for a layup or a dunk. He must also use his mid-range game when necessary, especially late in the game.
This will be tough, as World Peace can still come away with steals, but Kirilenko cannot let that happen. A key to Minnesota winning is him besting World Peace, and that cannot happen unless he is ready to play a blue-collar game and dominate the paint on the offensive side.
X-Factor: Steve Nash
Ever since the Lakers adopted their new approach, Steve Nash has gone from being a floor general to more of a two-guard. He'll still accumulate assists, but Kobe Bryant is now the chief playmaker, posting 12 dimes a game over the Lakers' last four contests.
Look at it this way. On the season, Nash is averaging 11.5 points and 7.7 assists per game, shooting 52 percent from the field and 43 percent from long range.
Over Los Angeles' last four games, however, the numbers are a bit different. Through that stretch, Nash has averaged 13.8 points per game and shot an incredible 57 percent from the field. From long range, he has shot 50 percent.
The number that stands out the most, however, is that Nash has only averaged 3.5 assists per game during the Lakers' recent run.
He'll need to keep doing what he's been doing when the Lakers face Minnesota, but must also be willing to increase his production in the passing department. Kobe Bryant has been phenomenal since he started taking fewer shots, but he cannot be the sole playmaker. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak brought Nash aboard to be the team's best passer as well as a solid scorer, and both skills will need to be present in Minnesota.
This means that Nash must work to drive the lane and create his own shot on top of taking wide open ones, but must also use his excellent court vision to find opportunities for his teammates. It may be tough against Minnesota's defense, especially if Howard is unable to play, but Nash needs to bite the bullet and use his experience.
He alone can turn the tides of this game and swing the pendulum in the Lakers' favor, so vintage Nash may have to make an appearance in what is sure to be a close game at the Target Center.
The Lakers need a win in Minnesota, and that's going to be tough to come by since they have gone just 5-16 on the road this season. The Timberwolves have gone 11-8 at home, and they'll be seeking to break their losing streak as well as protect their home court.
Unfortunately, the Lakers will breach the 'Wolves' defenses and win once again. Kobe Bryant will take advantage of Minnesota being more banged up than Los Angeles, dishing off passes and sinking clutch shots in full playmaker mode. With or without Dwight Howard, Los Angeles is going to have a great game.
Who will win?
Metta World Peace's shooting woes may not be over yet, but he'll make up for them by sinking one or two key threes in the third quarter and playing incredible defense from start to finish. Earl Clark will continue to be a force at the "4," playing tough D on the inside while also stretching the floor on offense.
Steve Nash will be the man of the hour once the second half starts. Not only will he make his shots, but he and Bryant will work together in creating plays for the rest of the guys. I'm talking about plays that bring back memories of when Nash played for Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix.
Young Minnesota will simply have no answer for the Lakers' balanced and disciplined attack, with the lack of a solid go-to scorer hurting them badly. By the final buzzer, the Lakers' experience will just make the loss hurt a bit more than others.
Los Angeles Lakers 103, Minnesota Timberwolves 94