The Nets (14-23) got 2018 off to a perfect start as they managed to sneak past the Magic in 98-95 win in front of an electric Barclays Center crowd. They’ll hope to remain undefeated in the New Year when they host the Timberwolves (24-14) on Wednesday night.
Minnesota has an All-Star caliber trio of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, which is a big reason why the team sits fourth in the Western Conference. Butler is quietly becoming a dark horse for the MVP award as he’s been on a tear in his past five games, averaging 27.2 points, 6.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals on 53 percent shooting.
Yet there is still a sense that the Timberwolves aren’t playing as well as they can, despite their 13-game improvement from the same exact point last season. That criticism has come from the belief of some that Towns and Wiggins have yet to fully tap their potential after being in the league for a few seasons. True or not, the Nets don’t want to be the team to allow either player to show what they can do.
Brooklyn also has a few players who are finding themselves. Jahlil Okafor is a player with a lot of potential and he’ll finally make his Barclays Center debut on Wednesday. The center has only played in one game since his Dec. 7 arrival from a trade with the Sixers, dropping 10 points and four rebounds in the 120-87 loss in Toronto. He has recorded nine DNP-CDs since, with head coach Kenny Atkinson insisting that he wanted to put the 22-year-old in a position to succeed.
Nets fans will get a glimpse of that against the Timberwolves.
Here’s Three Things to Watch For:
How Much Will Okafor Play?
Atkinson insists that the No. 3 pick of the 2015 draft will need to earn his minutes in the Nets’ rotation, saying he wants the center to make an impression in “small doses.” So Okafor will need to prove what he’s capable of in order to cement a role in Brooklyn.
Interestingly enough, Okafor has had success against Towns when he’s started against Minnesota’s star. In the first-ever matchup between the two in 2015, Okafor had a dominant game, putting up 25 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks to Towns' six points, three boards and two blocks. In fact, in the two games that they started against each other in the 2015-16 season, Towns only averaged 7.5 and 4.5 rebounds against Okafor.
Towns has obviously progressed since then, but one has to wonder if the analytically-driven Atkinson is aware of those stats as well.
Key Matchup: Wiggins vs. Allen Crabbe
Wiggins is usually the first player brought up when observers claim that the T’wolves aren’t playing up to their potential. The 2014 No. 1 pick came into the league heralded as an already talented defender who could become the next Tracy McGrady if he develops on offense.
Despite playing under defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, Wiggins has regressed defensively and is an inefficient player offensively. Still, the verdict is still out as he’s just 22 and when he’s on, he’s on. Against the Lakers, he showed what he could do with 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. Crabbe and the Nets have to find a way to frustrate the Canadian early or he could take over the game.
To Crabbe’s credit, he’s recently been embracing his new role of perimeter defender. He had eight rebounds, three blocks and a steal in Monday’s win over Orlando and he admits that he’s become focused on that side of the court as his shot isn’t where he wants it to be. The Nets will need more of the same to contain Wiggins.
Can the Nets get Consistency at Home?
Brooklyn is 8-10 at Barclays Center, an area it wants to improve to continue the progress made this season. A win against Minnesota would match the team’s longest win streak at home this season (three). It would also be the first time that the Nets would get consecutive wins against the Timberwolves at home since 2008.
Dinwiddie, Crabbe, Carroll, Hollis-Jefferson, Zeller
DeMarre Carroll (sore rib) is QUESTIONABLE, Caris LeVert (left groin strain) is DOUBTFUL, D’Angelo Russell is OUT (left leg surgery).