Category: 2011-2012 Game Previews

Game 34: Utah Jazz vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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Utah Jazz (15-16) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (16-17)

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Derrick Williams! Jeremy Evans! Its your 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest!
Derrick Williams! Jeremy Evans! It's your 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest!

Last game: Minnesota: L, 103-101 vs Denver in OT, Utah: L, 106-102 vs San Antonio

Minnesota lost a heartbreaker to the Nuggets in Denver on Monday to fall back under .500 again. The Wolves had a chance to tie in overtime after a key steal by Martell Webster. But with Minnesota trailing by three, Webster flew all the way to the basket for the dunk with less than a second on the clock. I just…I don’t…ugh.

Utah dropped a close game to a banged up Spurs team on Monday. Despite missing Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter, the Spurs were able to beat the Jazz in Utah thanks in part to Matt Bonner’s hot three point shooting (5 3-pt field goals). Al Jefferson had 20 points in the loss, and Utah has dropped seven of their last nine.

The Key Questions

#1. Why have the Jazz been struggling so much recently?

Utah’s recent struggles can be partially attributed to the quality of competition. Over the past 12 games (of which Utah has won three), the Jazz have faced Oklahoma City twice, San Antonio, Houston, Memphis, Indiana, New York, and both Los Angeles teams. Just a brutal stretch.

That being said, a true playoff team would hope to win more than three of those games. Utah posted quality wins over Memphis and the Lakers, but their other win during that stretch was against Washington, and they dropped games to the Warriors (ouch) and the Hornets (really really ouch). Not fun times in Salt Lake City.

#2. Record-wise, how significant is this game?

Surprisingly significant. The winner of this game goes into the All-Star break with a .500 record, and the loser hits the bottom of the division. Admittedly, in a tightly packed Western Conference race, divisional standings mean next to nothing, but for a perennial bottom feeder like Minnesota, it would be a big psychological boost to move out of the cellar halfway through the season.

In a totally meaningless bit of interesting information, tonight is a matchup of Dunk Contest rivals in Jeremy Evans and Derrick Williams. Evans absolutely deserved to be in the contest ahead of New York’s Iman Shumpert (if you don’t believe me, search YouTube for some of Evans’ best work), so his addition is a welcome change. Also: someone please agree with me that the NBA making the Dunk Contest completely in the hands of the fans is an utter travesty?

#3. Will Pekovic be available to play?

Pek is questionable tonight after spraining his ankle against the Nuggets on Monday. According to the Pioneer Press:

Pekovic, injured in the second quarter of Monday’s 103-101 overtime loss at Denver Monday night, will go through a treatment session first with team trainer Gregg Farnam.

“Gregg told me he wants to see how I’m feeling this afternoon,” Pekovic said after today’s shootaround practice. “I feel OK. I just have a little pain. I should be fine. If I play, I should be close to 100 percent.”

His presence will be an important factor tonight. The Timberwolves, lacking talent so severely at the wing positions, will need to out-do Utah’s post production. The last time these two teams met, Paul Millsap beat Kevin Love handily. It would be nice to see that change tonight.

The Key Matchups

The center position will be one of the more interesting chess matches of the game. Al Jefferson struggled against Darko’s length in January (6-14 from the field), but Pekovic is considerably more productive, and strong enough to keep Jefferson out of his comfort zone. Pek, however, won’t be able to bother Jefferson with length. The plot thickens.

Despite Minnesota’s lack of talent at the wing, I refuse to be concerned by Gordon Hayward and Josh Howard. I just…I’m sorry. I can’t do it.

Utah’s bench, however, concerns me some. There are some talented players coming in with the second unit, including promising rookies Enes Kanter and Alec Burks, as well as Derrick Favors backing up Paul Millsap. That’s a decent amount of good young players.

The Outlook

Last time these two teams met, Utah was a playoff team, 10-5, and playing confident basketball, especially at home. Tonight, the Timberwolves have developed their own chemistry, they have won three of their last four, and they will be playing at the Target Center. By no means is a victory certain, but the Wolves have to be feeling good about their chances.

Game starts at 7 pm on Fox Sports North

Game 33 Preview: Denver Nuggets vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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Denver Nuggets (17-15) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (16-16)

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Last game: Minnesota: W, 102-101 vs Philadelphia, Denver: L, 124-118 OT vs Oklahoma City

I miss this face.
I miss this face.

The Timberwolves managed to pull out a tough home game against the Sixers last night on two last second free throws by Kevin Love. Ricky Rubio scored a career high 22 points in the win, and the Wolves moved back to .500 again.

Denver lost a heartbreaker in overtime last night against the Thunder. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook absolutely torched the Nuggets for 51 and 40 points respectively. Aaron Afflalo led the Nuggets with 27 points.

The Key Questions

#1. Who will be more exhausted?

Both teams are on the second night of a back to back. Both teams fought through close games. One would like to assume that the Nuggets will be more tired, since they lost and since their game went into overtime, but Minnesota was matched up against a tough, gritty Philadelphia team. They could be worn down as well.

#2. Why has Denver been struggling so much lately?

The Nuggets have lost 10 of their last 13 games. In nine of those games, Denver’s opponent has scored 99 or more. In two of the three wins, Denver’s opponent has score 92 and 91. It’s safe to say that Denver’s defense has been struggling.

According to the rather excellent Denver Nuggets blog Roundball Mining Company, the problem lies in Denver’s defensive IQ. This is a little strange to me, since Denver has solid individual defenders like Corey Brewer (miss u) and Aaron Afflalo. But click on the link to see a solid breakdown of how Denver’s defense, well, broke down thanks to miscommunication between Kosta Koufos (don’t really miss u) and Afflalo against an Oklahoma City pick and roll.

#3. Who gon’ stop Pek? Who gon’ stop him now?

Pekovic has scored in double figures 10 games in a row. There were several players who I expected to have big, breakout seasons this year playing for Minnesota. I’m afraid Nikola Pekovic wasn’t one of them. Timofey Mozgov is going to have his hands full tonight. He may have a few bruises after the game as well.

The Key Matchups

Kenneth Faried has been starting for Denver at the power forward, but last night against the Thunder, he got just 11 minutes. Kevin Love should expect to face a rotating door of defenders including the incredibly athletic Faried, Al Harrington, and others.

Pek vs. Mozgov will be fun, as will Pek vs. Kosta Koufos. Koufos has been giving Denver solid minutes. He has been so good that Denver has reportedly put Chris Anderson up on the trading block.

Does anyone else miss Corey Brewer as much as me? His defense, especially one on one, was amazing, and he was an incredibly infectious locker room presence in a good way, by all accounts. It seems like this team would have really been a good fit for him. His matchup tonight againstWes Johnson could be painful, who Minnesota used to have, and who Minnesota is currently stuck with. Sigh.

Ty Lawson is brutally fast and athletic, but he’s not the type of point guard who gives Rubio fits. Rubio should be able to move his feet and use his height and length to bother Lawson.

Denver has a deep bench to match Minnesota’s, so no real advantage there. It will be interesting to see if Adelman extends his bench on the second night of a very difficult back-to-back.

The Outlook

Don’t look now, but a win tonight combined with a Portland loss to the Lakers would vault Minnesota into a three way tie for eighth in the Western Conference. You know. Layoff-pay erritory-tay.

Game 32 Preview: Philadelphia 76ers vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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Philadelphia 76ers (20-11) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (15-16)

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Last game: Minnesota: W, 111-98 vs Houston, Philadelphia: L, 82-75 vs Dallas

What ISNT possible for Pek at this point?
What ISN'T possible for Pek at this point?

The Wolves went on the road Friday and defeated Houston for the third time in four tries this season, wrapping up the season series with the Rockets. Minnesota was spurred by their post play. Kevin Love continued to unleash unholy terror on the league, scoring 33 points and ripping down 17 rebounds, while Nikola Pekovic bumped and banged his way to a career-high 30 points. Ricky Rubio added nine assists.

Philadelphia fell to Dallas on Friday at home. The Sixers were limited to just 33.7% shooting from the field, while Dirk Nowitzki torched them for 24 second half points, 28 overall. Philadelphia rookie Nikola Vucevic led the Sixers with 16 points.

The Key Questions

#1. How good is Philadelphia?

Early on, the Sixers were questioned early and often. Despite their excellent record and point differential, Philly was beating up on weak teams. Since then, Philadelphia’s record has come down to Earth a little bit, but they have also defeated some quality opponents, including the Magic, Lakers, Hawks, and Bulls.

It’s certainly difficult to crack the elite section of the top-heavy Eastern Conference. To get to the Eastern Conference Finals, a team is going to have to knock off either Chicago or Miami, and good luck with that. But in the battle for third place in the East, it would seem Philadelphia has made a fairly convincing case.

#2. In a difficult game against a quality team, will Adelman open up his bench a little more?

Adelman only played eight different players against the Rockets. He may play one more if JJ Barea is back (he missed Friday for personal reasons and is questionable for tonight), but otherwise, don’t bet on seeing anybody else. Adelman seems to have found the rotation he trusts, and he doesn’t seem to like switching that rotation up. I’d criticize him, but he’s shown an annoying habit of proving me wrong every time I do. So. Nailing it, Rick.

#3. Can Wes Johnson continue to play…maybe not WELL, but better?

I find it funny (not really) that people boo Michael Beasley when he takes a three, but there seems to be an unspoken agreement not to boo Wes when he takes one. Y’all realize Beasley is shooting 40% from behind the arc while Wes is shooting just 22%, right? I realize Wes takes more threes than Beasley, but doesn’t that speak positively to Beasley’s shot selection?

Fortunately, Wes has shown he can do a few other things besides miss three pointers in a pretty way over the past few games. He defended and bothered Kevin Martin on Friday (and had a really nice chase-down block on Courtney Lee in the process). He had five rebounds against Houston, and has been working to get to the hoop more, as three of his four baskets were from within the three point arc. More importantly, he was 4-6, so he was taking shots within his arsenal. Continued improvement from Wes would be good.

The Key Matchups

How well can 320 year old Elton Brand defend Kevin Love? That will be one of the biggest keys to tonight’s game.

In the absence of Spencer Hawes, Nikola Vucevic and Lavoy Allen have been splitting minutes for the Sixers. Neither player is overwhelmingly amazing, although Vucevic has had a couple of decent games. They will be matched up against Pek, who has been nothing short of a human chainsaw for the past two weeks. Enjoy!

Wes will be given the unenviable task of guarding Andre Iguodala. Iggy is averaging 12.4 points per game this season, and Wes will need to keep him out of the lane: Iguodala is only shooting 35% on jump shots this season.

The Sixers are more dangerous as a team than individually. Their team defense is frighteningly intense, and under head coach Doug Collins, they have learned to work very hard. Minnesota will need to match their intensity to have any chance of winning.

The Outlook

Philadelphia’s point differential scares me. From a talent standpoint, Minnesota might be better than Philadelphia, but from a talent standpoint, so are the Lakers, Magic and Hawks. Tough game to predict.

Game starts at 6 on Fox Sports North

Game 31 Preview: Houston Rockets vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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Houston Rockets (17-13) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (14-16)

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Last game: Minnesota: W, 102-90 vs Charlotte, Houston: W, 96-95 vs Oklahoma City

Minnesota beat a team they should have beaten on Wednesday, allowing Charlotte to hang around for the first half before turning up the intensity in the second half and beating the Bobcats handily. Kevin Love threw up 30 points and 18 rebounds (a fairly unremarkable number for him…) while Nikola Pekovic continued to dominate close to the basket, contributing 21 points. Rubio dished out seven assists. Bobcats rookie Kemba Walker (<3) scored 21 in the loss.

Houston won an impressive game against the Thunder on Wednesday. The Rockets ran out to a big lead before the Thunder came roaring back, and the teams traded leads in the third and fourth quarters. Durant missed a floater with the Thunder down by a point in the final seconds, and Houston sent Oklahoma City to just their 7th loss. Kevin Martin poured in 32 points as Houston moved to 17-13 on the season, good for 6th place in the West.

The Key Questions (and Matchups)

After the last game these guys played, I rashly wrote (paraphrasing) “You would be hard-pressed to convince me Houston is better than Minnesota at this point.”

After the past two weeks, I’m much closer to being convinced.

But let’s be honest: we’ve seen these guys enough to know what to expect. This is the fourth time these teams have played each other this season. Any two teams who play each other on a consistent basis will develop some bad blood. That bad blood spilled over a little bit in the last matchup at the Target Center.

Without further ado and in place of the usual preview format, I present my creation, in honor of the internet meme that has been crushing Facebook over the past week.

Thank you guys. I’ll be here all week.

The Outlook

I will be responsible for no jinxes tonight. I think Houston wins this one, evening the season series. I think the home crowd will rattle Kevin Love by booing him every time he touches the ball, and I think a motivated Houston squad gets their revenge.

Game 30 Preview: Charlotte Bobcats vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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Charlotte Bobcats (3-25) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (13-16)

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Last game: Minnesota: L, 102-89 vs Orlando, Charlotte: L, 98-89 vs Philadelphia

Kemba Walker remains my favorite college basketball player of all time. I hope he scores 30 in a loss.
Kemba Walker remains my favorite college basketball player of all time. I hope he scores 30 in a loss.

The Wolves struggled against a veteran Orlando team on Monday. Orlando simply outshot the Wolves, connecting on 12 three pointers, including several run-ending daggers that helped keep Minnesota down in the fourth quarter. Kevin Love put up 19 points and 15 rebounds while Nikola Pekovic added 16-13, and played Dwight Howard well on the defensive end, but the Wolves helped doom themselves with turnovers.

The Bobcats are stuck in a 15-game losing streak. Any optimism stemming from the team’s mediocre start to the season has since faded in the negativity of their awful continuation. Rookies Kemba Walker has performed passably, scoring 21 points in the nine point loss the Sixers on Monday, but the Bobcats seem lost, and could be on their way to a historically abysmal season.

The Key Questions

#1. After a four game losing streak, is it panic time in Minnesota?

Not quite yet. Every team Minnesota lost to (Memphis, Dallas, New York, Orlando) was a good team. Yes, it would have been nice to see the Wolves prove themselves against quality competition, but none of those losses were bad.

Tonight, however, is a must win. If the Wolves drop a home game to the Bobcats, it will indicate a disturbing shift in mentality. In the first part of the season, the Wolves seemed convinced, even against teams like Miami and Oklahoma City, that they had a chance of winning. If they lose to Charlotte, it would seem as though they weren’t convinced of that anymore. It’s a slippery slope from that ledge.

#2. Is there ANY hope in Charlotte?

Absolutely. Just not with the current roster; Charlotte desperately needs some more talent. Kemba Walker looks like he can play in this league. Bismack Biyombo has shown flashes. Gerald Henderson is much improved this season. But the Bobcats really need more scoring and, quite frankly, more talent. An excellent draft pick this year (which they will absolutely be getting based on record) might go a long way.

#3. Will the Wolves ever EVER cut down on their damn turnovers?

Probably, but not by as much as we might hope. Rubio’s flashy style of play is incredibly turnover prone. As teammates begin to adjust and begin to expect his no-look passes, the turnovers will go down somewhat, but until then, don’t be surprised if they continue to happen. It’s something we will have to adjust to.

The Key Matchups

Kevin Love will either be matched up against Bismack Biyombo (if the Bobcats decide to defend him with athleticism) or Boris Diaw (if the Bobcats decide to defend him with experience). Either way, Love will probably have a good night; neither player is known for his defense.

Rubio will be matched against Kemba Walker. Walker is considerably smaller than Rubio, but he is also an excellent ball handler and incredibly quick. Rubio has shown a proclivity for defending quick point guards, so one would hope Walker won’t be any different.

If Biyombo ends up guarding Pekovic, conventional wisdom would say Biyombo could challenge Pek with his athleticism and length. But Biyombo, though more muscular than most rookies, absolutely isn’t strong enough to keep Pek out of the area where he is most dangerous. It would be good to see Pek continue his offensive onslaught.

Considering that Charlotte’s team goes essentially three deep offensively when DJ Augustin is injured (Walker, Diaw, and Henderson), it goes without saying that Minnesota’s bench is considerably deeper and more talented than Charlotte’s. When the second units take the court, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Minnesota stretch a lead.

The Outlook

Minnesota needs to come out with a sense of urgency tonight for several reasons. First, they need a win. They can’t afford to give this game away. Second, it’s an opportunity to give players like Derrick Williams some valuable minutes if they can maintain a decent lead.

And that, I think will be key for the Wolves. Maintaining a lead. Too often they race out to a lead and proceed to slowly give it away. The Wolves desperately need to learn how to put teams away. What better time to start than against the Bobcats?

Game starts at 7 on Fox Sports North

Game 29 Preview: Orlando Magic vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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Orlando Magic (17-11) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (13-15)

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Last game: Minnesota: L, 100-98 vs New York, Orlando: W, 99-94 vs Milwaukee

Will Howard struggle against Pekovics strength tonight?
Will Howard struggle against Pekovic's strength tonight?

Minnesota let a winnable game slip away in the final minutes against New York, losing their third straight game after a three game winning streak. Rubio turned the ball over late and Jeremy Lin hit free throws to give New York their winning margin. Kevin Love’s final shot was a wild three from the corner that missed everything, and Lin-sanity (is there a hyphen? Reports vary…) continued to roll. Speaking of Kevin Love, the man dropped 32 points and 21 rebounds in the loss. Respect.

Orlando rallied late thanks to some very hot three point shooting, especially from Jason Richardson. Richardson had 31 points, including torrid 9-11 shooting from behind the arc, and 28 points in the second half.

The Key Questions

#1. Darko is still questionable for tonight. What can we expect from a Pek-Howard matchup?

The easy answer would be to expect Howard to tear Pekovic apart. After all, Howard is much quicker and more athletic than Pek. But Howard has historically struggled with defenders he can’t simply overpower with brute force. The brute force of an F4 tornado would have trouble overpowering Nikola Pekovic. Plus, despite his intimidating shoulders, Howard really isn’t any taller than Pek. It will certainly be a matchup to keep an eye on.

#2. How is it that Kevin Love can score 32 points, grab 21 rebounds, and still be a backstory in a game?

Is it fair to say that Love’s performance would have been better recognized if the Wolves had won? Or would the story then have transformed into “Jeremy Lin lost a game! Should we count him out as a point guard yet? Is he a failure?”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m enjoying Lin-sanity as much as the next guy. It’s a fun story and he looks as though he’s the real deal. It’s just…it’s just…what’s that? Why yes, these grapes I’m eating ARE incredibly sour. Thanks for asking.

#3. Orlando works almost exclusively from the perimeter or from Dwight Howard. How much of a problem could this prove?

Last season, one of the biggest holes in Minnesota’s defense was the corner three. Last year, Orlando feasted on the corner three. Last year, Orlando feasted on Minnesota.

Minnesota’s perimeter defense has, thus far, improved drastically under the tutelage of Rick Adelman. Players trust each other in help defense, which means teams swinging the ball around the perimeter are less likely to find someone completely open by accident. The Wolves will need to play really excellent, focused defense against the Magic to have any chance in this game.

The Key Matchups

Jameer Nelson is averaging career lows in points per 36 minutes, field goal percentage, and 3 point field goal percentage. Tonight, he will find himself matched up against a vastly improved point guard position for Minnesota, mostly against Ricky Rubio, but also against JJ Barea off the bench.

Ridnour will miss tonight for personal reasons. Presumably, this means Wes will switch back to the 2 guard, unless Adelman starts Wayne Ellington tonight. Either defender would be preferable over Ridnour against a large shooting guard like Jason Richardson.

We already covered Pekovic vs Howard, but what if Darko comes back? Honestly, I’m kind of hoping he doesn’t. Last season, Darko shot 62% from the field against Minnesota when Darko was in. When Milicic left the game, Howard shot just 40%. Small sample size? Perhaps, but it’s also consistent from what I remembered watching. Feel better Darko. Just…don’t feel too much better quite yet.

Finally, Ryan Anderson deserved to be an all-star in the Eastern Conference this year, strangely enough. He has been shooting incredibly well. It will be extremely important for Kevin Love to get back on defense if he doesn’t want to be punished tonight. (Translation: HEY KEVIN STOP COMPLAINING AND PLAY DEFENSE. More to come later.)

The Outcome

The Magic have a much better record than Minnesota, but are just one spot above the Wolves in point differential. These teams are closer than you think.

That being said, for as long as Orlando has Dwight Howard, they are an elite Eastern Conference opponent. Minnesota, sadly, plays in the toughest division of the tougher conference, and tonight is yet another tough game. Not unwinnable, but tough.

Game starts at 6 on Fox Sports North

Game 28 Preview: New York Knicks vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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New York Knicks (12-15) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (13-14)

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Last game: Minnesota: L, 104-97 vs Dallas, New York: 92-85

The NBAs newest sensation visits Minneapolis tonight.
The NBA's newest sensation visits Minneapolis tonight.

The Timberwolves lost their second straight game after a three game winning streak, falling to the Mavericks for the first time in three games in this season. Dirk Nowitzki looked much more like the last year’s NBA Finals MVP, scoring 33 points, while Kevin Love scored 31 and pulled in 12 rebounds in his return to action. Turnovers doomed the Wolves however, as they gave the ball away 27 times.

The Knicks held on to beat the Lakers last night. Kobe Bryant scored 34, but Iman Shumpert came off the bench and scored 12 points and Jared Jeffries had 11 points on 4-7 shooting.

Oh, and some guy named Jeremy Lin dropped 38. Or something.

The Key Questions

#1. Do we have to ask questions when Jeremy Lin and Ricky Rubio are matched up against each other?

Well, yeah. But we will make this one first. Sitting in my friend’s living room, his sister is watching MTV2. The crawler at the bottom of MTV2′s screen? “The Rockets feel regret about letting Lin go.” Good lord.

Rubio and Lin have been arguably the two best stories of the year so far. Rubio has energized a franchise that has long been one of the most downtrodden in the NBA. Jeremy Lin has revived the biggest basketball market in the US. The term Linsanity has become a part of the NBA blogosphere vernacular, after just four spectacular games. Knicks ticket sales have risen by 23%.

Without discussing their actual matchup on the floor at all, nights like tonight are the reason the NBA is so compelling: in no other sport are individual story lines on display so clearly for us to see. I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled.

#2. Oh. Other players too. Which Beasley will show up?

Jonah wrote about Beasley coming off the bench, and I think I agree. Having a player as talented as Beasley come off the bench as a sparkplug for the offense is a really great arrangement for the Wolves, and coming off the bench seems to remind him to play his role within the game and forces him to concentrate on the minutes he gets. A Beasley who doesn’t zone out is a Beasley capable of dropping 20 points on 8-11 shooting.

#3. So apart from Lin…how could the Knicks win tonight without ‘Melo and A’mare?

I legitimately have no idea…but the Lakers couldn’t take ‘em. So we will have to see.

The Key Matchups

Jeremy Lin really isn’t that quick. It’s his ability to change speeds that is devastating opponents at the moment. He has been feasting on some weak point guard competition lately, but Rubio is a good defender. Rubio moves his feet well, has great length and works hard. Honestly, tonight will be a great test for both players.

At almost every other position, the Wolves should have the advantage tonight. Presumably, Jared Jeffries will be guarding Love tonight. Pek might struggle with Chandler’s length, but he should be able to outmuscle him. Minnesota’s bench is much deeper, and both teams are coming off a back to back.

But it really will come down to limiting Lin. The way he has galvanized this team has been really special to watch. I’d just prefer that it not be special for one night.

The Outcome

Who really cares? It’s going to be incredibly entertaining either way. Tonight certainly seems like a winnable game for the Wolves. It would be nice to stay at .500, and if they can limit Linsanity, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable goal at all.

Game starts at 7 on League Pass.

Game 27 Preview: Dallas Mavericks vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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Dallas Maverickcs (15-11) at Minnesota Timberwolves (13-13)

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Last game: Dallas: W, 105-95 at Denver; Minnesota: L, 85-80 at Memphis

Guess who’s back?

But all of that is in the past. Kevin Love is back, and it’s 60′s night at the Target Center again in honor of the ABA’s Minnesota Muskies. The Wolves will don the hardwood classics for the second time this year, meaning I’ll be S.O.L. when I want to buy one again and I’ll have no money (It’s Lebron’s fault).

As for the game, this will be the third time these two face off this season, thanks to the shortened number of games. Would you believe if I also said the Wolves will be looking to beat the Mavs for the third straight time this season tonight too? 2-0 are the Wolves this year against the defending champs, who don’t look all that mighty anymore; Dirk isn’t anywhere near last season’s form — nor a All-Star bid, in my opinion; — the losses of Tyson Chandler and Barea are especially hurtful; and the additions they brought in, namely Lamar Odom, have been nothing useless. Although they have been starting to gel a bit lately, there isn’t a better time for the Wolves to step on the Mavs’ throats in this one — metaphorically, not literally, Kevin.

The Key Questions

#1) How ’bout a little rebounding?

Both Minnesota and Dallas rank in the top 10 in the NBA in rebounds per game. Can you guess who ranks better? Could you tell me the right answer after watching Wednesday night’s massacre in Memphis? The Wolves were out-rebounded 59-47 against a Memphis team without their best rebounder, Zach Randolph. You’d think that Kevin Love’s return hides that margin but don’t be too sure. In Love’s absence, we saw both Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams drastically improve on the glass, as well as Nikola Pekovic. Rebounding isn’t just a frontcourt skill; it should be a team goal.

#2) What Ricky will come to play tonight?

Tom noted in his recap for the Grizzlies game that Rajon Rondo fans have sat and seen him have some downright awful games, especially when it comes to shooting. Hell, it’s NBA nature to have a down night unless you’re Lebron. Rubio’s statline in Memphis is forgettable. Looking towards tonight, he’s had success against the Mavs in the last two games (31 points, 19 assists combined). Rubio seems to step his game up against big-named competition, but in order to reach that upper-echelon of point guards, he’s going to need to destroy the Mike Conley’s of the world. They need him big tonight.

#3) How do you contain Dirk?

You gotta admit, the Wolves have done an excellent job on Dirk this year already. Part of that was Anthony Tolliver and his versatile defense; part of that was Darko utilizing his size inside to not allow Dirk any easy buckets. The Wolves have the right personell to handle Dirk, or at least frustrate him; Dirk didn’t care for the double-teams from Rubio either.

Tonight could be a different story, though. Dirk has been on fire the last three games. Tolliver has seen his playing time be cut smaller and smaller as the weeks go on. Darko still isn’t certain to play tonight with his “ankle injury.” That leaves combos of Pek, Love, Williams, Miller and Randolph to contain Dirk. All I can say is, “Good luck with that.”

The Key Matchups

I won’t belabor this much anymore but obviously the key matchup is Dirk vs _______. Whoever fills that underline will have a difficult time with him tonight, my gut tells me.

The other matchup is, of course, Rubio vs Kidd. The two have been compared by analysts all over and they’re head-to-head matchups are really fun to watch. I don’t believe that Rubio is much like Kidd but at least close enough to make things interesting. Not to mention you’re watching the future of pass-first point guards in Rubio vs the old school pass-first chops of Kidd go mono-y-mono. Que da miendo.

The Outlook

It all depends on which of these two teams show up to play. The Mavs have looked ugly this year, and so have the Wolves. But both teams have also had their moments of brilliance. I’m hoping both of the latter show up and give the home crowd, likely a sell out crowd, too, what they want to see. I still feel this one comes down to defense and how the Wolves will be able to contain Dirk, but thinking of it from the Mavs’ perspective, Love is coming off of his suspension and will be looking to blow the roof off. Maybe it comes down to how well they can contain Love.

The game starts at 7 on Fox Sports North

Game 26 Preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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Memphis Grizzlies (12-13) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (13-12)

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Last game: Minnesota: W, 86-84 vs Sacramento, Memphis: L, 89-84 vs San Antonio

The Wolves face Memphis in Memphis tonight.
The Wolves face the Grizzlies in Memphis tonight.

The Timberwolves, somehow, despite Jimmer Fredette’s best efforts, and because of Nikola Pekovic’s, moved above the .500 mark for the first time since 2007, beating the Kings in Minnesota last night. It was the Wolves’ first of two games without Kevin Love, serving a suspension for stepping on Luis Scola’s face on Saturday.

An exhausted Grizzlies team fell to the Spurs on Monday, as three starters (Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley) played for more than 40 minutes. Gasol led the banged up Grizz with 22 points in a loss.

The Key Questions

#1. Why have the Grizzlies been losing so much this year?

Easy answer: injuries. Memphis was projected as a title contender early, but they have stumbled out of the gate to a 12-13 start, largely due to the gaping hole at power forward created by Zach Randolph’s torn right MCL. When he returns to the lineup in early March, don’t be surprised if the Grizzlies go on a bit of a tear.

Despite Randolph’s absence, the Grizzlies are still dangerous, and they have beaten the Wolves once already this year without Randolph. Plus they are 7-4 at home, which is where the Wolves face them tonight.

#2. Is Pekovic super awesome or just awesome?

As I was leaving the arena after the Houston game on Saturday, a vendor was holding up a jersey, shaking it so everyone would notice him. Love? Rubio? Nope. Nikola Pekovic. I almost regretted the Rubio Muskies jersey I had just purchased. Almost.

Pek has been super awesome, obviously. He was 9-12 from the field against Sacramento and grabbed 10 rebounds. More importantly, he was the only player on the floor for Minnesota who could score during the third quarter, keeping the Wolves in the game. He’s averaging 18.5 ppg in his last four games. Big, strong, and surprisingly talented, Pek might actually be my favorite subplot of the very young season.

#3. How did the bench perform, filling in for Love?

Surprisingly well, actually. Beasley took too many shots (7-21 from the field for 17 points) but he pulled down 14 rebounds and played with energy. I continue to think he makes a great sixth man off the bench. Derrick Williams got the start in Love’s place and scored 14 points on 5-10 shooting. He disappeared in the fourth quarter, save for the biggest shot of the game, a corner trey on a kick-out from Rubio.

They are a temporary fix, to be sure, but the tandem of Williams-Beasley should be able to fill in respectably for Love for one more game. Hopefully.

The Key Matchups

Last time these teams met, Beasley was matched up against Rudy Gay, who scored 19. This game, it will probably be Wes Johnson guarding Gay, which could be a problem. Wes’ biggest advantage as a defender is his length and athleticism, both of which are also strengths of Gay.

Don’t be surprised if Pek comes a little closer to Earth tonight. Gasol is incredibly long and talented…the kind of player we worry about Pek guarding. On the other hand, we worried about Pek a lot anyway, and look how dumb we look now.

The Grizzlies’ bench is getting pretty thin with all their injuries. Hopefully Minnesota preserved enough energy last night to try to run Memphis off the floor.

Tony Allen torched the Wolves for 20 last time they matched up. I like Ridnour, but matching him up with Allen scares me. Of course, we are also hoping that Allen, one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, doesn’t decide to guard Rubio tonight. Ugh.

The Outlook

This game could be tough. Although Memphis has a thin bench, they are also much more dangerous at home, and the Wolves had a difficult game last night. Plus, of course, they are without Love. Multiple players will have to step up for Minnesota if they are to have a chance tonight.

Game starts at 7 on Fox Sports North

Game 25 Preview: Sacramento Kings vs Minnesota Timberwolves

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Sacramento Kings (8-15) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (12-12)

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Last game: Minnesota: W, 100-91 vs Houston, Sacramento: 100-92 vs New Orleans

Marcus Thornton has all your malicious intent.
Marcus Thornton has all your malicious intent.

Minnesota finally reached .500 defeating Houston 100-91 on Saturday night, but it came at a hefty price: the loss of Kevin Love for two games after he accidentally/on purpose stepped on Luis Scola’s face and chest. Love had 25 points and 18 rebounds in the Timberwolves victory, while Ricky Rubio contributed 13 points and 11 assists.

The Kings continued their two game winning streak by beating the Hornets yesterday in New Orleans, largely thanks to the beastly contributions of Demarcus Cousins, who scored 28 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in the win.

The Key Questions

#1. Umm, how are the Timberwolves supposed to get a win without Kevin Love?

Easy. Derrick Williams/Michael Beasley just need to play good, consistent basketball for four quarters filling in for him. They will need to take good shots, avoid the mid-range game whenever possible, post up when they can, and focus on getting to the hoop and drawing fouls. They will need to take threes only when they are open, get a lot of rebounds, and make great outlet passes.


#2. What will the Pekovic/Cousins matchup look like?

Cousins is considerably more talented than Darko. He is also more talented than Pek, but the biggest difference between Pek and Darko is Pekovic’s sheer, brutish strength down low. Cousins may find himself in more of a matchup struggle tonight. Pekovic’s personal fouls per 36 minutes have also gone down from a whopping 7.3 (meaning Pek would more than foul out in less than an entire game every time he was on the floor…) to a less whopping 4.9. Still a lot of fouls, but definitely a vast improvement.

#3. With Kevin Love out, who will step up for Minnesota?

Last time these two teams met, the Wolves were spurred on by Kevin Love’s 33-11 (not surprising) and Luke Ridnour’s 25 points and 9 assists (really really really surprising). The Wolves backcourt, in comparison to Sacramento’s, is severely undersized, but they came through big back in January. Hopefully we see another big performance.

The Key Matchups

We already discussed Pekovic vs Cousins. One of the biggest advantages Minnesota will have, as usual, is depth. Barea wasn’t playing last time these two met, so his return should help quite a bit.

Derrick Williams could do wonders for himself tonight with a big game. It would probably earn him some more minutes in the rotation, since Kevin Love has been playing almost 40 minutes per game (39.4). Williams could also do wonders for Minnesota if the Wolves are considering him as trade bait by making some real contributions apart from awesome Rubioop highlights.

The Outlook

Even without Love, this is a very winnable game. The Kings have a two game winning streak, but both wins came at the hands of mediocre teams (Golden State and New Orleans). If the Wolves can avoid a slow shooting start, they very well could go OVER .500.

That would be a really weird feeling.

Game starts at 7 on Fox Sports North