LOS ANGELES LAKERS
at MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Tip-off: Thursday, 9:00 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
The new-look Lakers wrap up a three-game road trip in Minnesota.There's no way around it: PG Isaiah Thomas' time as a Cleveland Cavalier was an absolute disaster. Less than a year removed from his record-setting campaign with the Boston Celtics, IT looked listless, slowed and unhappy playing alongside LeBron James—and he confirmed all three to the media, repeatedly. He was traded as a result, landing in a Lakers uniform alongside PF Channing Frye and a first-round pick. In exchange, Los Angeles sent PF Larry Nance and PG Jordan Clarkson to the Cavaliers, each of whom was a significant contributor to the Lakers. Now Luke Walton is left with several questions to answer. Does he start Thomas or play him off the bench, as he did in the point guard's debut with the team? Does he "tank" to get his team better draft position? How does the fact that the Celtics own the Lakers' pick if it falls from 2-5 overall factor into that decision? And with such a young roster, who would Walton even sit to lose games on purpose. One team not tanking is the Minnesota Timberwolves, who will host the Lakers on Thursday night. The Wolves are within striking distance of the No. 3 seed in the West, a remarkable turnaround for a team that hasn't made the playoffs in 14 years. The Wolves and Lakers have played twice this season, with the games coming within a week of one another. Minnesota won both—121-104 in LA on Christmas and 114-96 at home on New Year's Day. Thursday night's game will be the second end of a back-to-back for the Lakers after they play in New Orleans on Wednesday night.
Relative to the what he did in Cleveland, Thomas thrilled in his Lakers debut with 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting and six assists in 31 minutes off the bench at Dallas on Saturday night. He was incredibly efficient as a high-volume shooter in Boston last year, so those writing him off after a few bad weeks in Cleveland were probably leaping to a conclusion too soon. That's not to say that Thomas is ready to return to his MVP-level performances of yesteryear, but somewhere in between that and his disastrous shooting in Cleveland ought to make Walton happy. While PG Lonzo Ball remains out with an injury, he'll have plenty of time with the ball in his hands. Rookie SG Josh Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope occupied the starting backcourt in the Dallas game, combining for 23 points but only five assists. Leading the way in passing—and just about every other department—for LA was PF Julius Randle, who had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. He'll see more consistent minutes with Nance out of town. SF Brandon Ingram also impressed, scoring 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting. He's got plenty of room left to grow, and a second-half surge would inspire greater confidence that he'll actually do so. PF Kyle Kuzma has been a revelation as a rookie, and he pulled down a game-high 15 boards against Dallas.
Coming off of back-to-back road losses, a home win to Sacramento on Sunday night would have been even more discouraging than usual for the Wolves. But despite turning the ball over 17 times and trailing by 10 points in the second half, Minnesota scraped out a 111-106 win. C Karl-Anthony Towns led the way for the Timberwolves with 29 points, eight boards, six assists and three blocks. A dominating interior presence, Towns figures to feast on the Lakers' undersized front line. It's SF Jimmy Butler, however, who has had LA's number thus far this season, leading the Wolves in scoring on Christmas with 23 points and again on New Year's Day with 28. Butler was busy last week with 35 points against Cleveland and 41 against Chicago, but only had 18 against the Kings. He leads the league in minutes per game with just over 37, for which you can blame Tom Thibodeau. Towns is 15th, and 11th is SF Andrew Wiggins. The third banana in Minnesota's offense, Wiggins appears to have embraced his role lately and has been more efficient as a result. Rounding out the starting lineup are PG Jeff Teague and PF Taj Gibson. Gibson matched Butler's 23 on Christmas and added nine rebounds. Teague sat with a minor injury on New Year's Day; backup PG Tyus Jones was a game-best +23 in that matchup.