Five things to watch in Lakers-Timberwolves matchup
The Lakers are a much changed team since their mail-it-in 99-94 victory 10 days ago against Minnesota. They experienced their first loss. They sharpened their play in the first two road games in this trip. And they're locking in more on defense. It's crucial the Lakers (10-2) continue that mind-set for Friday's game (5 p.m. PST), because the Timberwolves (4-9) are also a much different team since their recent loss against the defending champs. If the Lakers maintain the level of play they've shown thus far on their road trip, the outcome shouldn't be in question. But there are a few areas that may require a bigger effort. The Star-Tribune put together some telling statistics regarding the discrepancy before and after the T-Wolves first played the Lakers, including record (1-6, 3-3), scoring differential (-17.1, +1) and points allowed (114.4, 104.3).
2. Who will own the glass?
Minnesota dominated that category in the last match-up, with a 54-42 advantage. Kevin Love grabbed a career-high 23 boards. And the T-Wolves' 26 offensive rebounds offset their 38% mark from the field. All of these factors pointed to a lack of hustle by the Lakers in the first meeting. But it also pointed to Minnesota's ability to make up for poor shot selection, entering that contest tied with the Lakers, averaging 48.1 rebounds per game. Love's rebound average spiked to 17.3, though Minnesota currently ranks second (46.23) behind the Lakers (47) in dominating the glass.
3. Can Lamar Odom limit Love?
In addition to Love's rebounding numbers, his playing time spiked to 36.3 minutes per game for good reason. His 31 points and 31 rebounds in a 112-103 victory last week over the New York Knicks validated the view of plenty of fans and writers who believed former Lakers and current Timberwolves Coach Kurt Rambis kept Love on too short of a leash. He's also recorded three double-doubles in five games since Minnesota's loss to the Lakers. It's safe to say things are going better than when he and Wes Johnson miscommunicated on a high-five.
Odom will have to put on a much better performance than he did last time against Minnesota, after getting in early foul trouble. My hunch is he will. He's been remarkably consistent this season this year, and his 14.9 points per game average on 58.5% shooting and 10.8 rebounds prompted former Lakers Jerry West and James Worthy to argue that Odom should play in the 2011 NBA All-Star game. It'll certainly be a heavy task, though. Odom has valiantly fought through a sore right foot and a damaged left thumb, and the news that Theo Ratliff and Andrew Bynum are sidelined only increases the pressure on Odom to carry the load.
4. Round 2 of Pau Gasol vs. Darko Milicic. It's crucial that Gasol carry his share of of the load, particularly because Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has said the forward needs to play more aggressively if he wants to be considered for league MVP. Gasol has averaged 22.9 points per game (12th best in the league) on 55% shooting, 12.2 rebounds (3rd) and 1.5 blocks (21st) per game. He also has led the NBA in double-doubles (10) and has led all big men in assists (3.9). So I see this as more Jackson needling Gasol. But against Minnesota, Gasol's effort was modest at best. Instead of completely dominating Milicic, Gasol put up 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Milicic finished with 10 points and seven boards at a time he was shooting 23% from the field. Milicic has since averaged 41.3%, and while this match-up should still remain lopsided, Gasol should ensure that actually happens.
5. How will Ron Artest match up with Michael Beasley?
Aside from his effort against Brandon Roy, holding him scoreless from field-goal range, Artest hasn't been happy with his defense. This match-up will give him an opportunity to make that first step, as Beasley's numbers have jumped within the last 10 days, from 14.3 points per game to 30 points. Jackson recently noted how Artest's work on Beasley in the last game resulted in him scoring 17 points on six-of-17 shooting. But that very well might point to Beasley's improved play. Artest has a chance to prove otherwise.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Pau Gasol puts up a reverse layup against Minnesota's Darko Milicic during the first quarter of a recent game at Staples Center. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times