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    There are uneasy feelings in Minneapolis at the moment. The Wolves limped through their tough early March schedule and made it out alive, hanging on to their playoff position. There was hope ahead as well because after the rough stretch of games the Wolves had a smooth docket of games to close out the season, and ideally walk into the playoffs with some confidence.

    Now the Wolves are just fighting for their lives. So far the Wolves are just 3-4 since the schedule lightened up and are now tied for the eighth seed with the Denver Nuggets, one of the teams ferociously chasing them. It was evident last night which team had more on the line, and was more desperate for a win. The Nuggets were playing with a different energy in the fourth that the Wolves couldn’t match, and ended up pulling out a key victory.

    Now the Wolves are a loss away from falling out of the playoffs completely. They can avoid that and push the Nuggets back to the ninth seed if they beat the Lakers, but that is a task that isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface.

    Since the All-Star break the Lakers are 11-10 and own a 3.4 net rating, which is good for 11th in the NBA. The Wolves are 8-10 in that same span and own a -2.1 net rating, which ranks 21st in the NBA.

    The Lakers have been trending up all season, and have no reason to tank (their draft pick is owed to Boston or Philadelphia). Their defense has been rock solid all year long, ranking 13th on the season and 13th since the All-Star break in defensive rating, but it’s been their offense that has taken shape and pushed them from ‘bottom feeder’ to ‘intriguing’ over the past few months.

    On the season the Lakers’ offensive rating ranks just 20th in the league, but since the All-Star break it ranks 11th. Their effective field goal percentage (eFG) jumped from 22nd to sixth thanks to a jump in 3-point attempts and makes. They went from the second worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA to the seventh best.

    Similar to the Rockets, but not nearly as dramatic, the Lakers have cut out their mid range game, and even interior game to an extent, and have focused dramatically more on 3-point attempts, while maintaining one of the fastest paces in the NBA.

    It’s not quite the hyper-drive offense that the Rockets run, but it’s more controlled than the frantic offense the Lakers ran earlier in the season. The Lakers were prone to turnovers and bad shot selection, but have turned that into quick ball movement and quick triggers on the perimeter.

    That style of play has given the Wolves some fits this season, but in reality any style of offense has been tricky for the Wolves of late. The key will be solving the Lakers’ defense. Playing at a fast pace yields a lot of opportunities for opponents to score on the Lakers, but they’ve been adept at guarding the 3-point line in particular.

    The Lakers will try to coax the Wolves into playing an up-and-down style, while the Wolves will try to grind things to a halt. Instead of letting the Lakers set their defense, perhaps the Wolves would be better off playing at the Lakers’ pace and trying to outscore them.

    A key return:

    However the Wolves decide to approach the matchup, it sounds like they’ll have some much awaited reinforcements. All indications point to Jimmy Butler returning to action tonight.

    He was active against Denver, but didn’t play. It was a long shot last night anyway, given the thin air and back-to-back looming. A return tonight makes a lot of sense. The Wolves return home and have a couple of off days before their next game, clearing the way for him to play the rest of the season.

    Butler’s return should be a major boost for the Wolves. If they win all three of their remaining games, they’re in the playoffs. They could still make it in, even if they win just two of their remaining games, so long as one of them is the final matchup against Denver.

    Lineups:

    Jeff Teague – PG
    Jimmy Butler – SG
    Andrew Wiggins – SF
    Taj Gibson – PF
    Karl-Anthony Towns – C

    vs.

    Alex Caruso – PG
    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – SG
    Kyle Kuzma – SF
    Julius Randle – PF
    Brook Lopez – C

    Injuries:

    Justin Patton (illness) – OUT
    Jimmy Butler (knee) – QUESTIONABLE
    Derrick Rose (ankle) – PROBABLE
    Jeff Teague (knee) – PROBABLE

    Lonzo Ball (knee) – OUT
    Luol Deng (ankle) – OUT
    Brandon Ingram (concussion) – OUT
    Isaiah Thomas (hip) – OUT

    Media:

    Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

    When: 10:30 ET/9:30 CT

    How: Fox Sports North and NBA-TV

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