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Preview: Thunder test mettle vs. Timberwolves of the future

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Karl-Anthony Towns could be an all-time great, but Steven Adams knows how to handle him.

Serge is always one for the aerial view.
Serge is always one for the aerial view.
W. Bennett Berry

At 13th place in the Western Conference, the Minnesota Timberwolves are effectively out of the playoff race. Accordingly, the Timberwolves never really meant for this to be a competing year. Rather, the year was dedicated to developing their young talent. The most standout guy is Karl-Anthony Towns, the #1 pick in last year's draft. Here' how Town's season has progressed thus far, from John Meyer of Canius Hoopus:

Towns is third in the league in total rebounds (666) behind only Andre Drummond (950) and DeAndre Jordan (847). Only seven bigs have more blocks than Towns' 114 and his 4.6 block percentage is tied for 10th with perennial swat artist, Serge Ibaka. He already ranks 15th in PER at an absurd 23.18 and he's 18th in offensive win shares at 4.4. Sam Mitchell has called him the best shooter on the team, and his true shooting percentage (.593) and effective field goal percentage (.557) wouldn't disagree. Towns is so incredible that every game thread here at Canis Hoopus should probably start with the same comment: "God bless the basketball overlords for delivering Sir KAT of Kentucky to Minneapolis."

If Towns' PER holds, it will go down as the all-time best Player Efficiency Rating by a 20-year-old rookie.

That's scary. So it's all the more intriguing to see how Steven Adams, our own center of the future, stacks up. Here's the head-to-head stats thus far:

On the surface, these stats are extremely promising. Adams is averaging 9.3 points on 65% shooting, which is well over his season averages of 7.4 ppg on 60% shooting. Meanwhile, Towns is averaging 14 points on 42% shooting, well below his season averages of 18 PPG on 55% shooting. If Towns is truly set to take over the NBA, Adams may be worth his weight in gold to the Oklahoma City Thunder. On the other hand, Towns has a distinct rebound advantge, with 12 rebounds per game compared to Adams' 4 rebounds per game. We all know that Westbrook steals a good portion of Adams' rebounds, but the stats are the stats.

Digging deeper, it's apparent that Adams has the clear advantage. From my recap of the January 12th matchup:

Steven Adams absolutely obliterated Karl-Anthony Towns. Sure, there were times where Towns handles got him into the paint. But consider that Towns shot 0-7 outside the paint. Towns also struggled against Adams defensively, as Adams was able to score 8 points against Towns during the first quarter. One of the baskets was a particularly impressive long hook shot. Adams offensive game continues to develop, but like in Ibaka's case, it's disappointing that Adams faded down the stretch. Not a single shot attempt after the first quarter.

And my recap of the January 28th matchup:

In the second half, Adams was more of a force. Towns was only able to score on Adams once in the opening 7 minute stretch of the third, and that was just a mid-range shot. Otherwise, Towns wasn't able to get another attempt. Also, once Adams was subbed in at the 2:55 mark of the fourth, Towns didn't score another basket.

As further proof of Adams value, the first play of this highlight reel is of him hitting a very difficult hook shot directly against Towns.

LaVine and Wiggins

Aside from Towns, Zach LaVine has been on a tear recently. Starting the most recent seven games, LaVine has rattled off averages of 19 PPG on 48% shooting. But LaVine's increased averages simply may be a result of long court time. From Eric in Madison at Canis Hoopus:

One of the results of the lack of depth tonight was that Zach LaVine played 45 minutes, with a brief stretch at the end of the first quarter his only rest. It was too much, as he was clearly tired in the 2nd half, missing shots and fumbling the ball, especially when trying to carry the load with the rest of the starters on the bench toward the end of the third quarter. It's too much to ask, but when there are no palatable alternatives, this is what you wind up with.

Andre Roberson will have his hands full nonetheless. Roberson tends to do well against bigger guards, but can sometimes let the quicker guards get the best of him. Especially with plays coming from the weak side of the floor. Thus, LaVine will be a real challenge. LaVine works both on and off the ball, generally taking most of his shots from three or at the rim. As long as Roberson doesn't give up the paint and tracks LaVine in transition, LaVine shouldn't be too much of a threat.

Andrew Wiggins is another big name on the Timberwolf roster, having been drafted 1st in the 2014 NBA Draft. Wiggins is effectively second banana on the team, getting less opportunities than towns but more than LaVine. Against the Thunder this year, Wiggins has been generally effective from the shooting guard position. But Wiggins mostly plays small forward these days, and will likely have to deal with Kevin Durant tonight. I'd say that puts a dip in Wiggins' averages, because he no longer has such a size advantage. Durant will be more taxed on defense though, because Wiggins will take shots from literally everywhere on the floor.

Aside from these three central pieces though, the Timberwolves really aren't anything to write home about. Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio are viable long-term pieces. Dieng keeps the defense honest and is efficient on offense, while Rubio is arguably the NBA's best passer. But Rubio and Dieng both have offensive flaws that can really hurt the Timberwolves at times. Shabazz Muhammad, Tyus Jones, and Nemanja Bjelica should see time off the bench. Bjelica will be back for the first time in three weeks. But the time for the bench will likely be limited, as it has been a historic source of weakness for the Timberwolves.

OKC's backup PG experiment, who gets minutes?

The Thunder continue to trudge on with their Kevin Durant at backup point guard experiment. Wednesday night against the Clippers, Durant had 3 assists to 1 turnover while manning the backup PG position. Durant also went 2 of 3 from three. Confusingly, former backup point guard Cameron Payne got a small opportunity while the game was still competitive. In 2:36 of game time, Payne turned the ball over once. It's only the second time Payne has gotten minutes after being replaced by Foye in the Thunder lineup. The other game was also against the Clippers, this time on March 2nd. Payne scored 2 points with a rebound and assist in 3:22 of game time. It seems that Donovan is unwilling to commit to Payne, but thinks he can provide a change of pace for a few possessions. I'm not sure I see what point there is in giving Payne such light responsibilities. Hopefully Donovan decides to either stick with KD at point guard, or Payne at point guard. At this point, my preference is KD. The Thunder backups have two solid games under their belts right now, and tonight presents a great opportunities for a third straight.

Dion Waiters missed Wednesday Night's game against the Clippers due to the tragic death of his younger brother. Waiters is questionable for tonight's game. With Waiters out against the Clippers, Anthony Morrow stepped off the bench for 12 minutes of action. Morrow was 1 of 5 from three, with a rebound, assist, and foul. Some of Morrow's misses were really disappointing, but he also hadn't played for seven straight games. Morrow would be likely to get Waiters' minutes again tonight.

Enes Kanter should be an interesting watch tonight. Kanter has had to face a variety of Minnesota bigs, from Pekovic to Dieng. But tonight, if Minnesota's rotation holds true, there's no big coming off the bench. So if Kanter could get time against a tired or undersized lineup, I could see a big game. Then again, if Kanter gets caught up with Dieng or Towns, who knows. Also, I'm really looking for some improvement out of Randy Foye, who has shot just 30% in his 9 games with the Thunder. Foye has continued his good assist to turnover ratio, to his credit.

The Thunder should win this game handily. Russell Westbrook hasn't really been slowed down by the Wolves at all in three matchups this year, while Durant has been off and on solid. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves are 3-8 since the All-Star break. The Timberwolves can rise to the challenge of better teams. We've seen it against Boston, Toronto, and the Clippers as of late. But OKC has key defenders in the right positions, which is why I think this win should be easy. At least, I'm hoping so, with San Antonio looming on the road tomorrow. If KD and Westbrook could sit the final portions of the fourth quarter, that would be ideal.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 116, Minnesota Timberwolves 97.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 65
@
20-35
(Lost 2)

44-20
(Won 2)
March 10th, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network North
Injury Report: Dion Waiters (Questionable), Nikola Pekovic (Out), Kevin Garnett (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Jan 12 (W 101-96), Jan 15 (W 113-93), Jan 27 (W 126-123)
Probable Starters
Ricky Rubio PG Russell Westbrook
Zach LaVine SG Andre Roberson
Andrew Wiggins SF Kevin Durant
Gorgui Dieng PF Serge Ibaka
Karl-Anthony Towns C Steven Adams