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Bucks vs. Timberwolves Preview: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins meet Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker

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Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves are both in theory being built for the future, but only one of them will win when they meet in Minneapolis on Saturday night.

After splitting a home-and-home preseason series, the Bucks and Wolves open their two-game regular season series in remarkably similar positions, separated by just a half game in the (lottery) standings.

Bucks Update

Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty and company finished 2015 in style -- but just barely. In one of their more impressive first three quarters of the season, the Bucks ran the Pacers ragged and then had to hold on for dear life in the waning minutes of Thursday's 120-116 win over the Pacers in Indianapolis, nearly squandering a 17-point fourth quarter against Paul George and company. But they didn't, so...yay team?

More importantly, can we talk about Khris Middleton for a moment? Two days after scoring a career-high 36 points in OKC, Middleton kept his hot streak going with 33 points, five rebounds and four assists, raising his averages over the past six games to 25.2 points, 5.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds on a sizzling .589/.559/.909.

Damn.

In short, Khris is playing absolutely phenomenal basketball right now. We've always known he could shoot the lights out, but what we're seeing from Middleton is much more of the complete package than we've ever seen before. Middleton has become the Bucks' most reliable isolation scorer (0.90 points per possession, 62nd percentile league-wide) while facilitating for others in ways I certainly never expected (seriously, 5.3 assists per game?). As much as we might want Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker to be the focal points of the Bucks' offense, Middleton's making an increasingly compelling case for why he's been the guy of late. It shouldn't detract from the importance of making Giannis and Jabari consistent pieces of the Bucks' attack, but it also shouldn't be seen as a bad thing.

A decidedly fun thing has been the Bucks' recent tempo: the pace of Thursday night's game was the fastest all season, one game after they had set their previous season-high in OKC. They're struggling to defend consistently, but their offense has looked miles better.

"We wanted to play with pace, high energy and get stops," Middleton said. "We knew they were coming into a back-to-back and played in overtime. We're a better team when we're pushing the ball and getting easy baskets.

Amen, Khris.

Wolves Scouting Report

Early on this season it looked like the Wolves might be this year's version of last year's Bucks: the plucky group of talented youngsters and a handful of cagey veterans who exceed all expectations to make a playoff run. But after a 4-2 start, the Wolves' youthful indiscretion has begun to look a bit more difficult to overcome. Interim coach Sam Mitchell has seen his team lose five of their last six games and nine of 12, though that's hardly the most important thing happening in Minnesota right now.

Let's start with the short-term view: the Wolves are 12th in the West and 3.0 games back of the 8th seed, boasting the sort of substandard offensive and defensive ratings that Bucks fans are all too familiar with. No team has made or attempted fewer threes than Minnesota (no, not even the Bucks), and their 26th ranking in three point shooting suggests it's not without reason. They do get to the line a ton, though their remaining metrics are fairly mediocre-to-poor.

Of course, the short-term view ignores the big-picture excitement of what we're seeing in Minnesota -- namely, the rise of a core built around presumptive rookie of the year Karl-Anthony Towns and his wingman Andrew Wiggins. At the tender age of 19, Towns is already leading the Wolves in most every efficiency category, not to mention 20.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Translation: he's going to be a superstar.

And for all the talk of Wiggins not having the "alpha" instinct to be an NBA star, that would seem to be the one thing he most definitely has. Though he remains below-average in terms of most every efficiency metric, Wiggins is using up 28.3% of possessions while scoring an impressive 20.6 points per game. He doesn't do much else statistically, but he gets to the line at will, is excellent in the post (1.03 PPP) and has the tools to be an excellent man defender.

That's of course not the end of the Wolves' youth movement either. For all of his failings as a shooter and scorer, Ricky Rubio is still a two-way playmaking dynamo (9.1 apg, 2.3 spg); Zach LaVine has shown flashes of explosive scoring while being yo-yo'ed between guard positions; Shabazz Muhammad can be a handful off the bench, especially in the post (99.3 percentile); and Gorgui Dieng is a valuable third big off the bench.

In the meantime, the Wolves continue to rely heavily on veterans Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Martin, and thus far KG and Prince seem to be adding value. The Wolves' starting five featuring the veteran has been terrific overall, outscoring opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions in 179 minutes.

Standings Watch

The Bucks remains 6.0 games and five spots out of the East's 8th spot.  On the flip side, the win over the Pacers moved them down to 9th in the lottery standings, though just 2.0 games separate the Bucks from 4th seeded New Orleans.

On the WolvesCanis HoopusWolf Among WolvesT'Wolves Blog

2015/16 NBA Season
Milwaukee bucks.vc6d60d4
(13-21, 4-15 road)
vs.
(12-21, 5-12 home)
January 2, 2015
Target Center | Minneapolis, MN
7:00 CT
FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Michael Carter-Williams PG Ricky Rubio
Khris Middleton SG Andrew Wiggins
Giannis Antetokounmpo SF Tayshaun Prince
Jabari Parker PF Kevin Garnett
Greg Monroe C Karl-Anthony Towns
2014/15 Advanced Stats
94.1(23rd) Pace 95.7 (17th)
103.3 (24th) ORtg 103.3 (25th)
109.5 (28th) DRtg 106.2 (19th)