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Shorthanded Timberwolves can’t maintain identity in loss to Lakers

Timberwolves coach Chris Finch has previously noted how chameleon-like Minnesota was a year ago.

That was largely a product of injuries. But the 2022-23 Timberwolves proved they could play a certain style or scheme depending on who was available.

The goal wasn’t to be the same this season. Minnesota wanted to be big and strong defensively from the season’s outset. It has achieved as much, running away with the lague’s top defensive rating by a large margin.

But, in an 82-game campaign, there will be times when circumstances demand a different approach. Such was the case Sunday, as the Timberwolves were sans Rudy Gobert, Kyle Anderson and Monte Morris on top of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Anderson and Gobert are two defensive lynchpins for the Wolves.

Towns, Gobert and Anderson are three of Minnesota’s primary bigs in a big-ball team.

Missing all of them, Minnesota went hyper-small Sunday in Los Angeles against the Lakers. Jaden McDaniels was essentially the power forward in the starting lineup, with Reid serving as the lone big.

Minnesota was forced to change approaches and essentially lean into its offense. It worked for a half. The Wolves trailed by just one, 69-68, at the half, as Reid scored 21 points over the first two frames thanks to a spread floor approach that created driving lanes and open jumpers.

But it wasn’t sustainable in Minnesota’s 120-109 loss to the Lakers (36-30).

Because, eventually, the Wolves’ lack of defense and size caught up to them.

Minnesota (44-21) took a one-point edge into the final frame, but Lakers star Anthony Davis tallied eight points and nine rebounds in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter while Minnesota missed its first nine shots, allowing the Lakers to build a 16-point advantage midway through the frame.

Davis finished with 27 points and 25 rebounds.

“He should’ve dominated us. He had size, length, all that stuff. Was in the paint for seven or eight seconds every time they shot the ball. It’s easy to go get it. But we’ve got to do a better job of rooting him out,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch told reporters postgame. “Really it was offensive rebounds that hurt us in the fourth. We got off to slow starts offensively both in the third and the fourth quarter. But I felt confident we would be able to come back. So many second shots, it’s difficult at that point.”

Los Angeles shot 53 percent from the field and 41 percent from deep as all five starters scored 13-plus points.

“I was a little disappointed, it took us way too long to find our physicality on the ball. I don’t know if we were playing to keep ourselves out of foul trouble. It was clear they weren’t going to blow the whistle a lot, so we should’ve been way more physical in the beginning of the game. Once we started to get physical in the third, we were right back into the game, but we needed to do that more in the beginning,” Finch said. “We started the game trying to be aggressive in pick and roll. They did a good job of picking that apart. … We looked a little rusty there. Tried some zone, we tried everything. … We had to be more physical on the ball.”

On the offensive end, Reid had 25 points for the Wolves, while Anthony Edwards added 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

Sunday was a reminder that while offensive shootouts can be enjoyable to watch at various points throughout an 82-game campaign, they are not what strong seasons are built upon. Minnesota’s size and defense are what makes the Wolves a high-level team in the Western Conference.

And while Minnesota can veer off that path when the availability of players dictates as much, the results will likely fall off as a result. As was the case during last season’s 42-win campaign. The offense that got off to a quick start against the Lakers dissipated in the second half Sunday, while the defense that ha been so solid all season can generally be relied upon for four quarters.

Of course, that defense largely rests upon the availability of Gobert, who missed the contest with right hamstring tightness. Finch said he didn’t have a gauge of when Gobert will return to action. Minnesota will stay in Los Angeles and next plays the Clippers on Tuesday.

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