The Los Angeles Lakers could slowly be inching their way toward a playoff run, but they still have some work to do. Fortunately, the slumping Minnesota Timberwolves will visit the Staples Center for a nationally televised game on Thursday night, and a big win could give the Lakers plenty of momentum at their backs.
Los Angeles has the advantage of having defeated Minnesota once already this season, on Feb. 1 at the Target Center, but wins are anything but guaranteed against this feisty squad. Though devastated by injuries in what has become a lost season, the Timberwolves are capable of getting hot in a game in the blink of an eye.
This can be attributed to the dynamic nature of point guard Ricky Rubio, who is slowly turning into one of the best passing point men in the league. Against a weak Lakers defense, he could have a field day.
Thus, Los Angeles must not be cocky and be ready to stave off a team that, at times, likes to run and be explosive. Though unlikely, losing to the Timberwolves at home could be damning to any and all playoff hopes.
Time: Thursday, Feb. 28, 10:30 p.m. EST
Records: Minnesota Timberwolves (20-34) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (28-30)
Betting Line: Not available as of Wednesday, Feb. 27, 10:44 a.m. EST
Injuries: Jordan Hill (hip, out), Pau Gasol (foot, out), Brandon Roy (knee, out), Chase Budinger (knee, out), Malcolm Lee (knee, out), Kevin Love (hand, out), Andrei Kirilenko (calf, day-to-day) and Nikola Pekovic (undisclosed, day-to-day), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Lakers Seek Momentum with Big Win Over Minnesota
The Lakers may have beaten Minnesota the first time the two teams faced off this season, but that is not indicative of how the team needs to play the second time around. On Feb. 1, with star center Dwight Howard out with a shoulder injury, the Lakers won 111-100 thanks to 22 points and 12 rebounds from Pau Gasol, plus 17 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists from Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash also chipped in 17 points of his own.
But the Lakers don't have the luxury of Pau Gasol for Round 2, as the Spanish seven-footer is recovering from a foot injury. The team has a gaping void in the low post and no suitable body to help fill it.
Thus, man-to-man defense will be the name of the game if the Lakers are to defeat Minnesota again. This means taking advantage of the Timberwolves being short-handed and, on offense, communicating fully and not relying on Bryant to go into Mamba Mode from the get-go.
So long as the common goal is to win and work together in achieving a victory, Los Angeles has a shot. Otherwise, Los Angeles will go from being the City of Angels to the City of Upsets.
Key Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Nikola Pekovic
Assuming Pekovic is able to play through his injury, his matchup with Dwight Howard will be the one that decides the game. A phenomenal low-post presence at 6'11", 290 pounds, Pekovic has averaged 16 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field.
He has also been great over his last five games, posting 18 points and 10.6 rebounds per contest, plus 1.8 steals. On a team whose season has been lost, he has been one of the few bright spots.
His opponent, Howard, has been decent in his first season with the Lakers, but definitely not himself. In adjusting to being a pick-and-roll player as opposed to a low-post big man, Howard has averaged 16.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.
Howard definitely has the experience edge over Pekovic, but the fact that he has been so hot and cold since D'Antoni took over makes this matchup a question mark. He has the potential to be the difference-maker in this game, but whether or not he will be remains to be seen.
Either way, Howard needs to demand the ball assertively and have some inner fire that makes him want to do more than just beat Pekovic in the stat sheet. Rather, he must want to absolutely destroy the Minnesota center.
This means mixing up his developing pick-and-roll game along with his work in the low post, being a threat in every way possible. Since Pekovic is not as strong an athlete and is much slower on his feet, this could put him at a disadvantage.
At that point, Howard will have swung the pendulum in the Lakers' favor just a bit more. Seeing as how he is averaging 17 points and 12.6 rebounds over his last five games, Los Angeles fans should be optimistic.
X-Factor: Steve Nash
Ever since Kobe Bryant took on more of a playmaker's role, Steve Nash has become the ultimate combo guard at age 39. He is averaging 12 points and 7.1 assists on the season, and he has continued to be a freakishly accurate shooter, making 52 percent of his attempts from the field and shooting 43 percent from downtown.
Over his last five games, Nash has been par for the course. Through that stretch, he is averaging 12.2 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 51 percent from the field and 46 percent from long range.
Against Minnesota, Nash's task is simple: Keep on doing what you've been doing.
Long story short, Nash's best weapon against young Minnesota is his lengthy NBA experience. He must use it to take advantage of the team's defensive shortcomings, from finding his own shot to driving the lane hard before dishing off a pass at the last moment.
By working in tandem with Bryant to get the Lakers over the hump and into the playoffs, Nash can be a big help by just being great against Minnesota. A supreme game from him can get the Lakers a big win and plenty of momentum going forward, so fans should look forward to him having a solid performance against inexperienced Minnesota.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Luke Ridnour
SF: Mickael Gelabale
PF: Derrick Williams
C: Nikola Pekovic
PG: Steve Nash
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Metta World Peace
PF: Earl Clark
C: Dwight Howard
As much as the Minnesota fans would love an upset victory in Los Angeles, it's not going to happen. Despite a good night from Ricky Rubio, the Timberwolves will leave the Staples Center as victims of a blowout.
Nikola Pekovic's lack of speed will keep him at a strong disadvantage, and he will be no match for Dwight Howard, who will be as explosive as ever. Not even powerful dunks from Derrick Williams will be able to shift momentum in Minnesota's favor.
Once again, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will carry the offense and work together to create plays for each other and their teammates, making the Lakers look like the team that fans hoped to see all season long, as opposed to just during a late season push.
This is their game to lose, and their collective focus will guide them to a big win and hope for the remainder of the season.
Los Angeles Lakers 114, Minnesota Timberwolves 97