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Bucks vs. Timberwolves Preview: Milwaukee tries to maintain momentum against Minnesota

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The Bucks’ two stars square off against the struggling Wolves’ young core

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

After a sound pounding of the Pistons on Wednesday night, 119-94, Milwaukee continues its four-game road trip with a stop at the Target Center in Minneapolis tonight. They take on a struggling Timberwolves squad that’s failed to make the leap many predicted before the season (why does that sound so familiar...). The Wolves lost on Wednesday night to the Denver Nuggets, 105-103.

Bucks Update

It was a thorough thrashing of the Pistons on Wednesday night, as Milwaukee rounded up 36 assists compared to only seven turnovers. Those 36 assists are the Bucks’ most in any game the last two seasons. Of course, a successful win rarely stems from anyone other than Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jabari Parker, and that was the case again in Auburn Hills.

Jabari Parker played like a zeroed-in star, using his heft and deft control of the ball to tally 31 points, nine rebounds and seven assists including 4-7 from beyond the arc. Giannis chipped in 23 points, five boards, eight assists and two steals, but was only 8-18 from the field as a number of his usual contorted finishes happened to rim out.

Despite Detroit surprisingly shooting more three-pointers than Milwaukee, the Bucks were on-point all night from deep, finishing 11-22. Matthew Dellavedova and Tony Snell were a combined 5-5 on three-pointers, a welcoming sign given their depressed three-point averages for the season.

The highlight tonight will of course be the Bucks’ young guns squaring off with the Wolves’ trio of ballers, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine. We’ll see how Giannis and Jabari fare against their neighbors to the north.

UPDATE: In late breaking news, Milwaukee announced that Mirza Teletovic passed concussion protocol and will be available for tonight’s game. More importantly, Matthew Dellavedova is out tonight with a right hamstring strain, so Malcolm Brogdon will get his first NBA start. Cue “Hail to the Chief”. Also, Vaughn remains out with a left ankle sprain.

Timberwolves Update

After a narrow loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night where Zach LaVine missed a potential game-winning three-pointer, the Timberwolves dropped to 10-22 on the season. Many had this team pegged for an arrival year in the Western Conference given the hiring of Tom Thibodeau and expected progression for their tantalizing triumvirate. Alas, the best laid plans often go awry, as the Bucks were all too aware of after last season.

Even with the squad under-performing in the wins column, what may be more surprising is exactly why they’re losing. The Wolves have the league’s 26th ranked defense, flying in the perpetually rose red face of Thibs’ sterling defensive reputation. Karl-Anthony Towns is ranked merely 50th in rim protection this year among players facing at least three field goal attempts per game. Zach LaVine hasn’t actualized his athleticism on the defensive end, and Andrew Wiggins is falling far short of his defensive potential, a quality draftniks pegged as his one plug-in-and-play feature before the draft.

Minnesota’s offense has picked up the slack, ranking ninth in the league in offensive efficiency. That’s dipped somewhat from earlier in the season when they were top-five, but the proficiency of their stars from deep with Wiggins at 37%, Towns at 34% and LaVine at 41% on seven attempts per game, is a boon, particularly with the lack of shooting at the point guard position. Minnesota doesn’t attempt many threes as a team though, ranking 25th in the league at 23.5/game, two slots behind Milwaukee.

The point guard rotation in Minnesota remains a mercurial dance. Ricky Rubio is still whirling assists at a 32% assist percentage, but his shooting numbers remain putrid. He’s at a 42% effective field goal percentage on the year, with his backup Kris Dunn coming in just below at 41% and a 44.5% true shooting percentage due to his hesitance to jack from three at only one attempt per game. They both recognize the bellwethers on the team though, with usage rates at 15.4 for Dunn and 13.1 for Rubio while Towns (27.3), Wiggins (27.2) and LaVine (22.9) dominate the ball. Inconceivably, Adreian Payne also soaks up possessions when he happens to make a rare appearance with a 26.6 usage.

After a brief spurt of respectability winning three of four in mid-December, Minnesota has dropped three of their last four. Still, the Western Conference race for the eighth seed has become a depressing facsimile of the usual eighth-seed race in the East, as the Kings currently occupy the spot at 14-18. That’s easily within reach for the Wolves, and they’re hoping to pounce on a team that’s been inconsistent on the road.