Kiki’s Keys to the Game: Lakers vs. Wolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves have a bright future.

The Los Angeles Lakers are built to win now.

But who will win Friday night in Minneapolis? The easy answer is the Lakers, who have beaten the Wolves an amazing 17 consecutive times since March 6, 2007. But there are several reasons why that streak may not reach 18.

First, the Lakers are really struggling on the road. They started this three-game trip with losses in Detroit and Washington — two of the league’s worst teams. LA’s now 6-14 away from home, compared to 17-2 at Staples Center. That’s the biggest home-road discrepancy in the league. And it baffles me. Usually when you have a veteran team that plays a half-court game, you’re pretty consistent no matter where you play. You don’t have to rely on a home crowd for energy. You just play your game and you don’t get rattled. Especially when you have a guy like Kobe Bryant.

But the Lakers are just a different team on the road, and it’s hard to explain. Maybe traveling takes its toll on an older team, especially when you play in different cities on back-to-back nights. I really don’t know.

For the Lakers, it’s especially discouraging because they played so well at home right after the All-Star break. They won three straight, including routs of the Timberwolves and Heat. Kobe scored 102 points in those wins while wearing a mask to protect his broken nose. He’s just incredible. But I also give Mike Brown credit for solidifying his rotations and helping players get comfortable in their roles. Even Metta World Peace was starting to play great basketball. He had his best game against Miami, scoring 17 points and playing tough defense on LeBron James. When he plays well, the Lakers are exponentially better.

But then they hit the road and things got ugly again. In the last two games, Kobe took 57 shots and missed 40 of them. World Peace went 3 for 15. The bench contributed just seven points in Detroit. The Lakers blew a 21-point lead in Washington.

Now the Lakers need to salvage the trip with a win in Minnesota, but the Timberwolves are much better than the Pistons or Wizards. Which goes to show how quickly things can change in the NBA. The Wolves were the league’s worst team last season and second-worst the season before. Now they’re 21-19, just 2½ games behind the Lakers, and contending for a playoff spot.

A lot of credit for that has to go to Rick Adelman. He’s got them playing defense. Last season they gave up nearly 108 points per game, most in the league. This season it’s closer to 96. Some of that has to do with style of play, but mostly it’s a defensive system and effort on that end. Adelman is getting very young guys to play exceptionally well together, and that’s not easy.

Of course, two of those young players are the main reasons for Minnesota’s improvement: Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.

What can I say about Love? Three years ago, when he was coming out of UCLA, I liked him a lot. But I’d be lying if I said I saw this coming. I don’t think anyone did. He’s fourth in the league in scoring (25.5) and second in rebounding (13.8). He’s made more free throws than anyone. He won the 3-point contest during All-Star weekend. He’s really unique and an example of why it’s difficult to scout prospects sometimes.

Here’s why: When you look at a player, you look at athleticism first. It’s easy. You can see how high a guy can jump, how long his arms are, how fast he can run. Love doesn’t impress you in those ways. But you can’t look into a guy’s heart and see how much drive he has, how hard he’ll work and his will to win. If you could measure that, Love would be off the charts.

The really amazing thing is how quickly he’s done this. At the start of last season he was basically nowhere – a little out of shape, having trouble getting off shots against tall defenders. But he lost weight and became quicker and more mobile. He turned himself into a great shooter with range. He forged his game into a dynamo that’s consistently great.

Love just became the first player in NBA history to record 35 points, 10 rebounds and five 3-pointers in consecutive games. Who else is capable of that in today’s NBA? Maybe Dirk Nowitzki. Love creates the same matchup problems in that he forces one of your big men to go all over the court to defend him. In the Lakers’ case, that’s probably Pau Gasol. I love that matchup. Gasol has the advantage around the basket, but Love can take him out on the perimeter.

Rubio also could cause problems for the Lakers. He’s not a great shooter and he doesn’t give the Wolves big numbers every night, but he’s their catalyst on both ends of the court. He’s such a dynamic passer, he makes the game fun to play for all his teammates. People love playing with this guy and he’s making everyone on that team unselfish. In Minnesota now, it’s in vogue to share the ball. He’s also a better defender than people think because of his great court awareness and vision.

The Timberwolves have so many other interesting parts. Nikola Pekovic has come into his own this season. He’s so big and strong, he really helps Love down low, though neither one is a shot blocker. Michael Beasley has a tremendous ability to score, but they’re trying to get him to become a complete player. Derrick Williams was the No. 2 pick in the last draft and got off to a slow start, but he’s averaged 14 points in his last seven games and is a hard guy to guard.

Their second unit has a lot of offensive firepower with Beasley, Williams, J.J. Barea and Martell Webster. That bench is a big advantage against the Lakers, who still aren’t getting consistent production from any of their reserves.

Because of their youth and depth, Minnesota wants to make it an up-tempo game. Force the Lakers to take outside shots, then run off misses and beat LA’s big men down court. Use the pick-and-roll to draw Gasol and Andrew Bynum to the perimeter. The Lakers, meanwhile, need to pound the ball inside to the big men and run only when there’s a clear advantage. Make the Timberwolves take outside shots, especially Rubio. That means go underneath the screen on pick-and-rolls and force Rubio to be a shooter instead of a passer.

I still think the Lakers are a better team than the Timberwolves right now. Minnesota has made great strides and I love the team’s potential, but they’re still young and have to figure out what to do with this whole mix of players. But unless the Lakers figure out their own problems on the road, they can lose to anybody – even to the team they’ve dominated for the past five years.