Pelicans shootaround update presented by HUB International: New Orleans tries to break through for first win over well-rounded Minnesota

by Jim Eichenhofer

MINNEAPOLIS – As one of the NBA’s most improved teams, Minnesota (24-16) is on pace to not just reach the Western Conference playoffs for the first time in 14 years, but also carry homecourt advantage into Round 1. The West’s current fourth-best squad has made major strides for a variety of reasons, with one of the biggest being it no longer must rely too heavily on the rising duo of 22-year-olds Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. For example, Towns is averaging just 6.5 points this season vs. New Orleans in two matchups, but the Timberwolves prevailed relatively comfortably in both visits to the Big Easy, by margins of six and 18 points.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Pelicans forward Darius Miller said of the Wolves. “We’ve got to come out and play defense like we did last game (Wednesday at Utah, a 108-98 win), try to make them uncomfortable. I feel like they’re a disciplined team – they’re going to try to get into their (offensive scheme), and they’re going to play defensively. We’ve got to come out and play like we did (in Utah).”

Towns and Wiggins don’t have to produce huge offensive numbers to give Minnesota a chance anymore, because in the offseason the Northwest Division leaders acquired proven veterans Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague (currently sidelined by a knee sprain) and Jamal Crawford. Butler has been particularly problematic for New Orleans, averaging 21.0 points in the two meetings and shooting 53 percent from the field. The two-way wing has been on a tear recently, including a stretch of nine consecutive games scoring 20-plus points from Dec. 20-Jan. 3 (that streak ended with a 14-point night at Boston last night).

Reunited with head coach Tom Thibodeau, Butler has helped lead Minnesota to a five-spot jump in the NBA’s offensive efficiency rankings, currently in fifth place at 109.5 points per 100 possessions, via New Orleans (19-18) is sixth in that statistic with a rating of 108.6.

Other notes from shootaround at Target Center:

Minnesota averaged 10.5 offensive rebounds in its pair of November wins in New Orleans, an area the Pelicans will try to improve upon this time. The Wolves also took advantage of NOLA turnovers in those matchups, a periodic problem for the Pelicans that also hampers their defense.

“They got a lot of offensive rebounds and were real physical,” Pelicans forward/guard E’Twaun Moore said of the Wolves. “That’s one area I think we can improve upon defensively. If we can keep them off the boards and not give them second chances, I think that will help us out.

“We had a lot of turnovers against them. I think we had 21 and 19 turnovers. We have to cut that down.” ...

A victory Saturday would bring New Orleans to within just one game of Minnesota in the loss column. The Pelicans enter today’s eight-game NBA slate in eighth place in the West, but fifth-place Oklahoma City (22-17) is only 1.5 games ahead of them. New Orleans doesn’t have many games in the near future against teams in West spots 5 through 9, though it does host seventh-place Portland (20-18) on Friday.