The No. 7 Lakers (43-39) play the No. 8 Timberwolves (42-40) in first Western Conference play-in game this season. The game tips at 7:00 p.m. PT on TNT and 710 ESPN radio.
Below are three things to know ahead of the matchup:
WHAT’S UP WITH THE WOLVES?
Everybody around the NBA saw what happened on the Minnesota bench during their season finale against New Orleans on Sunday, when Rudy Gobert threw a punch at teammate Kyle Anderson. That led to Gobert being sent home at halftime, and subsequently being suspended for Tuesday night’s game against the Lakers. He was not on the team flight to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Jaden McDaniels, the primary defender on LeBron from a Lakers victory on March 31, suffered a broken hand by punching a wall, ending his season.
The Wolves were already thin up front, with Naz Reid’s season ending prior to that last Lakers matchup a broken wrist. They still have a potent offensive starting lineup with Towns at the five, Anthony Edwards featured on the wing, Mike Conley at PG and veterans Kyle Anderson and Taurean Prince stepping into the vacant starting spots. But that thins out their bench, and really limits the type of rim protection they can offer, with late second-round-pick rookie Luka Garza and undrafted Nathan Knight as bench options.
That said, the Lakers primary focus will be returning to defensive form that slipped some against the second and third units Utah and Phoenix were putting out there last week.
“We had a conversation about getting back to who we are defensively, being that top team defensively that we want to be, which has helped us win a lot of basketball games since the trade,” said Anthony Davis after Monday’s practice. “Getting back to that, playing with a little more effort, more energy. One shot … defensive rebounding. Getting back to the scrappiness that we’ve been used to playing with to help us get out in transition where we’re at our best.”
Minnesota can certainly provide a threat that the Lakers haven’t seen much of this season, with KAT picking and popping, trying to bring Anthony Davis and Minnesota’s other bigs out of the paint to account for his shooting, thus opening up the paint for drives from Edwards. The Wolves will also try to keep the Lakers out of the paint with collapsing team defense, hoping they’ll settle for jump shots. Attacking the rim, after all, is where the Lakers can really do a ton of damage.
ATTACKING THE RIM
Indeed, throughout the 2022-23 season, the Lakers have consistently attacked the rim, as shown through two stats: they’re sixth in the NBA in points in the paint (54.5), and first in free throw attempts (26.6).
The Wolves were also prominent in paint points at No. 8 (54.2), though a chunk of that was due to the Gobert screen-roll action when he inevitably rolled to, and often finished at, the rim. Where the Wolves drop off from L.A. is in free throw rate, as they ranked 16th in free throw attempts (23.7).
Since LeBron and AD became teammates in Los Angeles, opponents have always tried to keep them out of the paint. It’s just … very hard to do. And while some lineups prior to the trade deadline that lacked spacing around L.A.’s star duo did make things more difficult, the presence of skill guards D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves makes it even harder to contain the Lakers’ constant pursuit of the rim.
Gobert is a rim deterrent by himself, and McDaniels’ ability to contain the basketball on the perimeter serves a similar purpose. With both of those Wolves absent, that should only make the Lakers hungrier as they fly towards the goal.
RIDING THE HOME CROWD
Lakers fans know how to impact games. Especially big games.
Since LeBron James came to town, almost all of those games have been of the regular season variety, due mostly to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, the only time Lakers fans got to witness a postseason game was the 2021 play-in affair against Golden State, but that crowd was well below 10,000 people. When the Lakers won the 2020 title in the Bubble, most Lakers fans watched on television, and weren’t even able to celebrate with a parade.
And so, on Tuesday night, it’ll be a full, raucous building, anticipating the chance to lock in a full playoff series if the Lakers are able to get a win. And because Lakers fans know when to cheer – not just when the team is playing well, but when they’re struggling – they inevitably provide a big boost to the players. They’ll know to ramp things up especially when the Lakers are on defense in key moments, and settle just a bit when the team is on offense.
Home court advantage makes a big difference in the NBA playoffs … especially when it’s a Purple and Gold home crowd.