• Happy holidays everyone.

    The weather is getting colder by the day in Minneapolis, but the Timberwolves are heating up on the court, winners of three straight games. Jimmy Butler in particular has really started asserting himself on the offensive end of the floor.

    In his first month of the season Butler took a backseat to Wiggins and Towns, sticking to the shadows and letting the young Wolves to command the floor until Butler felt he could move in to a more active role.

    He was averaging 14.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.7 steals on 43.1 percent shooting with 12.1 shots per game and 4.0 free throw attempts per game heading into a matchup with Phoenix, but it was that game on November 11 when he decided it was time to take charge of the team.

    He voiced his opinion as such to the media, announcing his intentions to take the spot light and become the focal point of the offense. Whether he was concerned about the direction of the team or simply figured out how he could fit remains a mystery.

    What is known is he kept his word. Since that announcement he’s averaging 23 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.9 steals on 47.5 percent shooting with 17.1 shots per game and 6.3 free throw attempts per game.

    Over the month of December he’s been even more assertive, averaging 26.3/5.6/4.9/1.8 on 50 percent shooting with 18.4 shots per game and 7.3 free throw attempts per game.

    The results for the offense as a whole have seen dramatic improvements as well. Going into that November 11 game the Wolves owned a 106.2 offensive rating as a team, which still ranked 10th in the NBA. Since then the Wolves own an 111.0 offensive rating, ranking fourth in the NBA.

    As Butler has taken hold of the driver’s seat others have had to slide aside. Towns has seen a hardly noticeable decrease from 21.3 points on 14.5 attempts to 20 points on 14.3 attempts. It’s been Wiggins who’s seen the biggest hit.

    Wigs opened the season well, scoring 19.6 points on 46.2 percent shooting with 15.7 field goals per game heading into November 11. Since then Wiggins is averaging 16.5 points on 41.0 percent shooting with 15.6 shots.

    With Butler taking control Wiggins has seemed to fall into a secondary offensive role that he’s unsure how to deal with. At this point it seems to be a shooting slump more than anything and if he can break out of it the offense may be able to jump to greater heights.

    It starts with him taking better shots. He settles for mid range jumpers far too often instead of attacking the rim or taking 3-pointers. There are greater concerns for the Wolves at the moment though.

    With the offense humming right along the Wolves still have plenty to worry about defensively. Butler takes a lot of pressure off of Wiggins and Towns on the offensive end, though unfortunately it remains to be seen whether it helps or hurts them. It seems the more involved those two are offensively, the more active they are on defense.

    Perhaps eventually the light switch will turn on, or maybe it will never happen. For now though the Wolves will continue to rely on their offense.

    On the opponents’ side, the Lakers have struggled recently. After starting the season at 8-10, respectable for a young team, they’ve gone only 3-10 since then. Their defense is ahead of their offense as of now, owning a defensive rating of 105.6, which ranks seventh in the NBA. Their offensive rating is only 102.9, ranking 28th in the NBA.

    The Lakers play at a breakneck speed though, ranking first in the NBA in pace which props up their offensive point totals. Their inefficiencies cannot be masked by the speed of play though. They are a poor 3-point shooting team and commit many turnovers. They have a number of talented individual players but are still figuring out how to play with each other.

    As a team they spread the wealth around offensively with seven players averaging 10 or more points. Unfortunately at least two of those players will be out including rookie sensation Lonzo Ball.

    The Wolves have had mixed results with teams that play at a fast pace. Generally the Wolves like to slow the game down, and their defense will allow plenty of open shots and easy takes to the rim.

    The Lakers like to play inside, and while they aren’t a good 3-point shooting team, they have a couple of good individual deep shooters that the Wolves will need to account for.

    To win this game the Wolves will need to keep the pace slowed and make sure to focus the defense on these players…

    Key Matchups:

    Karl-Anthony Towns/Taj Gibson vs. Kyle Kuzma

    Jimmy Butler vs. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

    It remains to be seen who Thibs decides to run out there versus the rookie Kuzma, but lately Thibs has had Gibson guarding the bigger, physical centers and slid Towns to the power forwards. With Kuzma though it will be tougher to get away with.

    Kuzma is a quicker forward and Towns just doesn’t have the foot speed to keep with him off the dribble, and Kuzma is an excellent deep shooter. Either way Thibs decides to go Kuzma is one of the best 3-point shooters on the team and is a prime candidate to hurt the Wolves.

    It’s possible they’ll send different looks on Kyle as well to keep him off balance. Whatever the case, with Ball and Lopez definitely out and possibly more injuries, Kuzma will be the focal point of the Wolves’ defensive gameplan.

    On the wing KCP represents the best deep shooting threat but he’ll have to contend with Jimmy Butler, so life won’t be easy for him. It will be important for Butler to run KCP off the 3-point line and force him to shoot inside the arc.

    Lineups:

    Jeff Teague – PG

    Jimmy Butler – SG

    Andrew Wiggins – SF

    Taj Gibson – PF

    Karl-Anthony Towns – C

    vs.

    Jordan Clarkson – PG

    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – SG

    Josh Hart – SF

    Kyle Kuzma – PF

    Andrew Bogut – C

    Injuries:

    Nemanja Bjelica (foot) – ACTIVE

    Lonzo Ball (shoulder) – OUT

    Brandon Ingram (quad) – OUT

    Brook Lopez (ankle) – OUT

    Where to Watch:

    9:30 ET/8:30 CT on TNT (no Fox Sports North tonight)

    **For the Lakers’ perspective on tonight’s game, check out our very own Adam Gang’s Laker preview here

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