The first two months of the season were dramatically different experiences for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The teams have followed much more similar paths lately.
The Lakers visit the Timberwolves on Friday night in a matchup between teams that have two of the league's best January records despite coming off losses in their last outings.
Los Angeles (35-9) and Minnesota (16-28) started the season going in opposite directions. The Lakers won 14 of their first 15 games to quickly claim the best record in the Western Conference, a distinction they still hold thanks in part to a 10-4 record this month.
The Timberwolves, meanwhile, opened 4-23 - a miserable start that included a 13-game losing streak from Nov. 29-Dec. 23. Minnesota, though, has climbed back toward respectability by winning 10 of 13 games this month.
As good as they've been lately, the Lakers and Wolves are both coming off disappointing defeats. The Lakers rallied from a seven-point deficit in the final 2:21 of regulation Tuesday night before falling to Charlotte 117-110 in double-overtime.
Kobe Bryant had 38 points, eight rebounds and five assists before fouling out in the final minute of the first overtime. Los Angeles was outscored 17-7 the rest of the way.
"It's always stops," Bryant said regarding the late-game difference. "We've just got to learn from our mistakes and not let it happen again."
Minnesota, meanwhile, had a three-game winning streak snapped with a 98-89 loss to Detroit on Wednesday night. The Wolves led by as many as 11 points in the third quarter before fading down the stretch.
"We had a chance to put it away and we just didn't do it for some reason," center Al Jefferson said.
Wolves coach Kevin McHale didn't have any answers for why his team let up late in the game.
"That hasn't been our M.O. for a while," said McHale, who's 12-13 since replacing the fired Randy Wittman on Dec. 8. "Sitting there, it just felt like we couldn't get out of second gear."
That's been a familiar situation for the Wolves in recent meetings with the Lakers. Los Angeles has won eight of the last nine in the series, including three of four at the Target Center.
In the teams' first meeting this season, Bryant scored 26 points to lead Los Angeles to a 98-86 home victory Dec. 14.
Lakers forward Pau Gasol had 18 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in that game. Gasol, though, was held to 10 points and 4-for-16 shooting Tuesday, a performance coach Phil Jackson said was probably "the worst night he's had as a Laker."
The other 7-footer in Los Angeles' starting frontcourt, however, had another big night as Andrew Bynum finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds. The fourth-year center has posted four consecutive double-doubles, averaging 26.0 points and 13.5 rebounds while shooting 65.0 percent from the field and 81.3 percent from the free-throw line.
Jefferson has been nearly as effective lately, averaging 25.3 points and 10.9 boards over his last seven games.
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