From climbing higher up the playoff ladder to fighting to hold on to the 8th spot, the Lakers (36-35) have put themselves back into the "are they making the playoffs?" discussion.
After starting the month of March 7-2 and taking over the 8th seed from Utah, the purple and gold have lost their last 3 games catapulted by a lackluster performance in Phoenix a week ago. Kobe Bryant believes that his and Pau Gasol's return to the lineup has caused a shift in the team's offensive rhythm leading to a disastrous trip in Oakland on Monday against the Warriors.
But there's no sign of Kobe's injury hindering his game at all. In fact, he's back to being the team's main facilitator, and the Lakers look like they've adjusted back to that just fine. But Pau is a different story.
Gasol is playing like he had missed 20 games. His legs are just flat and aren't giving him the proper lift (not that he had a lot to begin with) on his jumpshots and rebounding. However, he's only logging in an average of 21.5 minutes in the 2 games he's been back. So, he's not on the floor long enough to really throw off the offense to affect how the team is putting up points on the scoreboard.
Defense is the true concern for the Lakers. And if they don't do something about committing their efforts on that end of the floor, the Lakers are going to be in deep, deep trouble in the playoffs.
Tonight, hopefully, they can start heading into the right frame of mind despite against a team they've beaten...ohhh, the last 21 meetings.
The Minnesota Timberwolves (25-44) have not improved much since the Lakers last saw them. They've lost 10 of their last 14 games since a 116-94 loss against the Lakers at the Target Center back in February.
The T'Wolves did upset San Antonio in this building during that stretch of 14 games, so this is by far not a safe game for the Lakers, especially the way they've been playing lately.
Ricky Rubio easily had his best game of the season versus the Spurs earning himself a triple-double of 21 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. But Rubio has yet to get anywhere near those points and rebounding numbers against the Lakers. Rubio is averaging just 11 points, 6 boards and 10 assists versus L.A. this year. Will he get it tonight? Probably not. Then again, Rubio hasn't exactly been the top problem for the Lakers against this team. That honor goes to a couple of players.
Since Kevin Love went down with a broken hand injury, Derrick Williams has been flourishing. Versus the Lakers, he's getting 15 points and 8.5 rebounds a game this season. He doesn't have a strong post-up game, but he likes to take that mid-range jumper and attack the rim when he sees an opening. So far, he's been doing it well against the purple and gold.
Former Maverick J.J. Barea has been killing the Lakers since his days in Dallas. He averages 17 points on 58.3% shooting the last 2 meetings, including a 20-point outing at Staples Center the last game. Not only is he quick and burly, he's also aggressive and fearless going into the paint to take those floaters over those tall defenders. Definitely not someone the Lakers would like to see get hot coming off the bench.
But the plot in this game is seeing if the Lakers can finally get themselves back up and start winning again.
Asked by the media during practice yesterday about concerns of losing their hold of the 8th spot, Kobe Bryant simply said, "Do I look worried?"
Despite their 3-game losing streak, the Lakers are still a game ahead of Utah in the final seed for the playoffs. The Jazz do own the tie-breaker over L.A., but they have to either match the Lakers' record at the end of the regular season or have a better record overall to steal the 8th seed back. The trouble their for the Jazz is they haven't been playing well for several weeks now, and their remaining road games are a little tougher than the Lakers. Not to mention that they still have the Thunder and Nuggets to deal with at home.
That being said, the Lakers have the resurging Mavericks, Clippers, Trailblazers (in Portland), Warriors, Spurs and Rockets in the coming weeks. They're 7-10 combined against these teams this season. That makes the rest of this 4-game road trip a must-win.
Talks about the Lakers needing to take that one big step forward have been non-stop all season-long. Everyone thought that they've finally gotten there once they started playing better as a team after the All-Star break. But the last 3 games saw them still having trouble adjusting and still confused about what they needed to do defensively.
That can't continue to happen if the Lakers want to go deep into the playoffs...or even make it to the playoffs.
Tonight is the 3rd and final meeting of the season versus Minnesota. The Lakers look to take the season series for the 6th-consecutive time. L.A. haven't lost at Target Center since March 6, 2007.
INJURY UPDATE — Metta World Peace: An MRI taken on Metta's left knee revealed a meniscus tear. He'll fly back to L.A. to get examined by team doctor Steve Lombardo to see the extent of the damage and when he's expected back.
Matchup of the Game
Lakers Bench vs. Timberwolves Bench: In the last 5 games, no other 2nd unit for any team in the NBA has jumped up the scoring column more than the Lakers and T'Wolves. For the year, the Lakers bench is averaging 26.9 points a game with Minnesota's 2nd unit getting 33.8 points. During the last 5 games, L.A. bench is up to 31 points per game (18th), but the T'Wolves reserves are tops in the league averaging 44.4 points an outing. The game could be decided on which team gets more out of their bench tonight.
Keys to the Game
> Complete Game: Lakers fans should not get excited should the Lakers come out strong and build a double-digit lead early. Unless the Timberwolves don't show up at all (which is not likely for a team coached by Rick Adelman), the Lakers will need to bring it from the opening tip all the way to end of the game.
> Contain Point Guards: Both Rubio and Barea should be the key focus for the defense tonight. No doubt these guys will push the ball up the court and penetrate to dish the ball back out to open shooters. The Lakers will need to be very active defensively but do it smart, especially with Metta World Peace not in action tonight.
> Slow It Down: After seeing the Lakers continue to fall into that speed trap by the Warriors Monday night, look for Minnesota to emulate that strategy. If L.A. learned anything in their last loss, they have to stay disciplined and poised in their offensive attack. That doesn't mean that they shouldn't run the ball or take a wide-open look early in the shot clock if they get an excellent opportunity to do so, but they have to be intent in starting their offense from the post and score based on what the defense gives them.
Watch Out For
LAKERS: Kobe Bryant: The last 3 games, especially against Golden State, haven't been sitting well for Vino. But how he approaches this game tonight could be the biggest key in how this game will end up for the Lakers. Will he take it upon himself to establish how the Lakers will run their offense from here on out or will he decide to take over the scoring load early — especially if Adelman continues to put Rubio at the 2 spot.
TIMBERWOLVES: J.J. Barea: This guy just loves and know how to attack the Lakers. If he gets it going, rest assured the rest of his teammates will follow soon enough.
@ Minnesota Timberwolves
Tip-off: 5:00 p.m. (PST)
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Jordan Hill (hip) and Metta World Peace (knee) are out.
TIMBERWOLVES: Malcom Lee (hip/knee), Kevin Love (hand) and Brandon Roy (knee) are out.