The Lakers have 10 wins. By far the least satisfying was their 99-94 victory over Minnesota at Staples Center almost 10 days ago. The Lakers came in undefeated, tossing opponents aside like orcas do penguins. The Wolves, meanwhile, had spent most of the season playing the penguin for the rest of the NBA. The line, if memory serves, was L.A. plus-17, a fairly absurd number for a professional basketball game.
Everything pointed to a blowout. Even Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis went on 710 ESPN Radio and basically presented his team as a bunch of young lambs being led to slaughter.
Of course, it didn't turn out that way. The Wolves led after the first quarter and never went away, forcing the Lakers to play to the very end and prompting Derek Fisher to call his team's effort "disrespectful." Given the overwhelming calm and happy vibes surrounding the team this year, the game represented the closest thing to controversy the Lakers have seen. (Keep in mind, it's all relative.)
So what will the rematch bring? Here's what to watch...
1. Monsters (and their creation)!
Not getting waxed by the Lakers apparently awakened something in Rambis' young squad. In their five games since visiting Staples, the Wolves have won three, and could have made it four with a little better push down the stretch in Charlotte. Modest steps, for sure, but keep in mind last season three wins was basically their quota for a month. The experience of playing well once against the Lakers will only embolden Minnesota for tonight's game, too. It shouldn't matter, since even a T-Wolves squad steeped in emboldened shouldn't be able to beat the two-time defending champs, but at the very least makes Friday's task tougher for the purple and gold.
In Wednesday's game against the Pistons, the Lakers sucked the life out of Detroit almost instantly. In Milwaukee, they stayed steady even while the Bucks were hitting jumpers they don't even make in video games, and eventually exerted control as Milwaukee found their proper offensive level. A similarly good performance against the Wolves will be welcome.
2. Kevin Love
It looked like the Lakers did a horrible job putting a body on him when Love grabbed rebounds in the first meeting. Then Love turned around and went for 31 boards against the Knicks two games later. Relatively speaking, that means the Lakers did a good job, right? (That's a joke, people. Though...) It is, to a large degree, becoming nearly impossible to keep him off the glass completely- he leads the league in rebounds per 48 minutes- and Love is scoring as well. 21 points a game over his last five, 19 overall. That Rambis is finally leaving Love on the floor certainly helps. In Minnesota's first seven games, he never played more than 32 minutes. In the last six, he's been under 30 minutes only once, and over 38 four times.
More minutes for Love is a good thing for Minnesota, but the Lakers certainly have the ability to exploit him defensively (the biggest reason he was getting short minutes in the first place). Lamar Odom can destroy him in the open floor, while should Love find himself matched up against Pau Gasol (one assumes Darko Milicic will draw the Spaniard most of the evening), forgeddaboudit. The best way to get Love off the floor is to make him a liability defensively.
3. Ron Artest
In the first meeting, Artest held Michael Beasley to 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting. Not bad work, especially in the context of what Beasley has done since, averaging 32.6 points a night over his last five games. When the Wolves needed a game winner the other night against the Clips, they went to Beasley. It worked. He didn't overwhelm in Miami, but he was still the second pick of the '08 draft for a reason. Not surprisingly, they're getting a little excited over his talent in Minnesota. Writes Stop-n-Pop (I can only assume this is in fact his given name) at the great Wolves blog Canis Hoopus:
"...Since Michael Beasley first came to this squad, we have long referred to his upside as "Melo-Lite". In the past few tilts the "lite" side of this equation has been completely removed. Folks, Mike Beasley is playing at the Full Melo. The entire package is there: height, athleticism, long range one-step jumpers, left and right hand, etc. He's still a little too left dominated, but Mike Beasley's offensive game is on a level Wolves fans simply haven't seen in the history of the franchise. During the game I Tweeted that Beasley is playing like D-Rose was the wrong pick and I stand by that. He's simply playing on a level we haven't seen in Minny since...well, on the offensive side of the ball, forever..."
High praise, and a lot of motivation for Artest to sink his teeth into the matchup, something he could use, particularly after averaging only 23 minutes over his previous three games. It's less time than Artest is used to, by a lot. His assignment will be key, as will the need to avoid foul trouble.
Every time the Lakers visit Target Center, I think it's worth pointing out the Timberwolves play on the ugliest home court in the league. That two-toned wood thing just doesn't work. Does this impact the game? Not really, but it impacts my viewing experience, which is nearly as important.