Game Preview: Hornets vs. Timberwolves 04/07/12

April 7, 2012

Following a quick trip to San Antonio to face the Spurs on Friday night, the New Orleans Hornets are back home Saturday for a home tilt against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Hornets are seeking a season-series victory over the Timberwolves, having split the first two games. Minnesota prevailed in the Crescent City 87-80 on Jan. 13, while New Orleans posted one of its finest road victories of 2011-12 in Minneapolis on March 10, by a 95-89 tally.

More importantly from a long-term standpoint, the Hornets will try to hand the Timberwolves what would be another damaging loss to their playoff hopes. Minnesota appeared to be in excellent position to reach the postseason in early March with a 21-19 record, but following a season-ending injury to point guard Ricky Rubio, a playoff trip has become increasingly doubtful. The Timberwolves went 4-12 in their first 16 games without the services of Rubio, dropping to 12th place in the Western Conference. With only 10 games remaining on its 2011-12 regular season schedule, Minnesota needs to reel off a string of victories to have any chance of ending an eight-year postseason drought. Since conference record is also one of the tiebreakers, a Wolves defeat against the Hornets would be doubly costly.

Due to a convoluted series of trades, the Hornets are in possession of a pair of first-round picks in the 2012 NBA Draft – including what once was Minnesota’s No. 1 pick. As a result, if the Timberwolves miss the playoffs, the Hornets will have two picks among the top 14 selections, an enviable opportunity to restock the roster with quality young talent.

Saturday’s contest against Minnesota is the first of five consecutive home games for New Orleans. The Hornets will also face the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento, Utah and Memphis on this five-game homestand.

Intriguing matchup: Center, Jason Smith vs. Kevin Love

Due to Minnesota injuries and rotation changes, Love has shifted to center recently from his usual spot at power forward. Regardless of what position he’s filling, Love has been a demon in the paint vs. the Hornets this season, averaging 32.5 points and 15.5 rebounds in the two prior matchups. That’s no small factor behind why Minnesota has enjoyed a 95-87 rebounding advantage. Smith and the rest of the Hornets’ frontcourt will focus on boxing out Love, trying to prevent the All-Star from giving Minnesota extra opportunities.


The Timberwolves, who joined the NBA one year after the Hornets in 1989-90, have struggled mightily since the departure of franchise player Kevin Garnett in 2007. Over the past four full seasons, they’ve gone 22-60, 24-58, 15-67 and 17-65. That recent run of frustration explains why 2011-12 has been such a positive step in the right direction. At 25-31, Minnesota has already topped each of those victory totals this season. Partly behind the staggering individual exploits of Kevin Love, the Timberwolves appear to be set up for the future as a quality club in the Western Conference. They were also hoping to earn a long-awaited playoff berth this spring, but a recent slump has made that an iffy proposition. Recent injuries to point guard Ricky Rubio and center Nikola Pekovic – their leading playmaker and second-leading scorer, respectively – along with a difficult schedule resulted in a 7-11 record in March games. Minnesota went just 2-5 on a seven-game road trip from March 15-23, but among those defeats were losses at the Lakers, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

What's new
The Timberwolves were one of the few teams that stood pat at the March 15 trade deadline, opting to stick with the group that has delivered the franchise’s best season since 2004-05. Unfortunately for the Wolves, absences by Rubio and Pekovic have created a new rotation, forcing several players into much larger roles. In addition, free-agent pickup J.J. Barea has missed over 20 games this season with an assortment of injuries. Rookie forward Derrick Williams has shown flashes of excellence, mostly coming off the bench, but his minutes have also steadily increased.

Timberwolves star
Love isn’t merely the Timberwolves’ most valuable player – he’s become the NBA’s premier power forward. The 6-foot-10 UCLA product has had a spectacular four-year NBA career, but he’s taken his performance up to a different level this season. Love has produced some eye-popping numbers over the last month, including a 51-point game at Oklahoma City on March 23, featuring seven three-pointers. In that 149-140 double-overtime loss, the 23-year-old established a Minnesota franchise record for points scored in a game, breaking Garnett’s mark of 47. Love’s unique skill set of scoring ability (26.5 points per game average), rebounding (13.6 boards per game) and perimeter shooting (37.7 percent three-point accuracy) is unmatched in the league.

Timberwolf on the rise
Minnesota has several players who only figure to get better with time and experience, but perhaps their biggest surprise of 2011-12 has been the play of Pekovic, a 6-foot-11, 290-pound force in the paint. The native of Montenegro has more than doubled his scoring average in Year 2 of his NBA career (5.5 points to 13.5), as well as his rebounding average (3.0 to 7.2). He racked up 21 points and 11 rebounds vs. New Orleans on March 10, after missing the Jan. 13 game due to injury.

On the sideline
Rick Adelman has been one of the NBA’s most successful head coaches for more than two decades. Portland’s only NBA Finals appearances over the past 30 years were with Adelman at the helm in 1990 and 1992. Later in the 1990s, Adelman spearheaded Sacramento’s resurgence from league doormat to title contender. He’s already off to an excellent start in Year 1 with Minnesota, guiding the youthful Wolves to a substantial improvement compared to 2010-11.

Did you know?
The city of Minneapolis hosted the Lakers from 1949-60, but was without an NBA franchise for nearly three decades when the Timberwolves began play as an expansion team in 1989. New Orleans was without the NBA from 1979 to 2002.

Players the Timberwolves want shooting free throws in a close game... If the Timberwolves need a three-pointer, three of their best options are...
Name Career FT percentage (through April 6)
Over 90 percent this season, for second time in three years.
Pure shooter is in third year from North Carolina.
Averages about nine attempts per game.
Name Career three-point percentage (through April 6)
Drilled a pair of treys in each previous game vs. NOLA.
Monty Williams was one of his mentors in Portland.
Won the NBA’s three-point contest at All-Star weekend.

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