Thunder vs. Timberwolves: Inside the numbers, matchups of NBA play-in tournament game

MINNEAPOLIS — The Thunder opened its season Oct. 19 at the Timberwolves.

The Thunder then hosted the Timberwolves in its Oct. 23 home opener.

The Northwest Division rivals played again on Dec. 3 and Dec. 16 to wrap up their four-game season series, all before the calendar flipped to 2023.

At 8:30 p.m. Friday in Minneapolis, six months removed from their first matchup and four months removed from their last matchup, the Thunder and Timberwolves will take the court at Target Center in a do-or-die game.

The winner will advance to the playoffs as the No. 8 seed to play the top-seeded Nuggets on Sunday night in Denver. The loser will be eliminated.

For the Thunder, this is all gravy. One ladle-full after another. It would have been preposterous to pick the Thunder to make the play-in, and now OKC is one win from the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Timberwolves have committed self-sabotage, punching everything except a playoff ticket.

Let’s dig into the matchup.

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Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) is congratulated by forward Jalen Williams (8) and forward Jaylin Williams (6) after being fouled by Pelicans forward Herbert Jones (5) during the second half of a 123-118 win in the NBA play-in tournament Wednesday at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

Thunder vs. Timberwolves season series

Oct. 19: 115-108 Timberwolves 

Not a lot to learn from. Kenrich Williams and Aleksej Pokusevski (both out) started for the Thunder. Tre Mann and Darius Bazley led the Thunder in bench minutes. Mann likely won’t play Friday and Bazley is a Sun. D’Angelo Russell played point guard for the Wolves. He’s now a Laker.

Oct. 23: 116-106 Timberwolves

If Oct. 19 isn’t useful to look back on, then neither is Oct. 23. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t play in this one.

Dec. 3: 135-128 Thunder

Gilgeous-Alexander led the Thunder with 33 points. Russell had 27 for the Wolves. Center Naz Reid had 13 points and 18 rebounds off the Wolves’ bench. Another big loss for Minnesota, as Reid is out after having wrist surgery.

Dec 16: 112-110 Timberwolves

Reid had another monster game, this time with 29 points and eight rebounds. He and Russell led the Wolves, which were without Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns only played in the first two matchups. Gobert played in three of the four games.

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Thunder guard Luguentz Dort (5) defends Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (1) during a game at Paycom Center on Dec. 16, 2022.

Rudy Gobert vs. Kyle Anderson

Yes, these are teammates, but Minnesota center Rudy Gobert punching Kyle Anderson helps explain how the Timberwolves got here.

Gobert landed the blow during a timeout in Minnesota’s regular-season finale. Gobert was sent home and was suspended for the Timberwolves’ play-in loss to the Lakers on Tuesday.

Luckily for Minnesota, the play-in is double elimination for the teams in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game.

Gobert, the longtime Jazzman, was good not great in his first year with the Wolves — not at all worth the exorbitant price Minnesota paid Utah. And that was before he took a blowtorch to the idea of team chemistry.

Gobert is expected to play Friday against the Thunder, but does that help the Thunder? Hurt the Thunder? Who knows. A lot depends on how Gobert’s teammates respond to his return.

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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Not Jaden McDaniels

Credit Jaden McDaniels for punching a wall instead of a teammate, but the blow backfired.

McDaniels fractured his right hand and is out indefinitely.

McDaniels’ absence could loom large. It’s likely he would have been the primary defender on Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

McDaniels, an All-Defense candidate, is Minnesota’s version of Herb Jones — a rangy forward tailormade to guard a slippery scorer like SGA. Jones, the Pelicans forward, defends SGA as well as anyone in the world, and still SGA had 31 points on 50% shooting at New Orleans.

Kyle Anderson has the length to disrupt Gilgeous-Alexander, and Anthony Edwards has the strength and athleticism. Taurean Prince is another option Timberwolves coach Chris Finch could turn to against SGA.

It’ll be a group assignment for the Wolves. The Pelicans threw double-teams and traps galore against Gilgeous-Alexander on Wednesday.

Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 33.3 points on 52% shooting in his three games against the Timberwolves.

When Gilgeous-Alexander gets to the hoop, Gobert will be there waiting. That’ll be fun.

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Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) shoots against Pelicans guard Trey Murphy III (25) during the second half on Wednesday.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Cousin vs. Cousin? It’s certainly on the table.

Alexander-Walker led the Timberwolves in bench minutes (23) in their play-in loss to the Lakers. He played well, with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting.

Shai’s father and Nickeil’s mother are siblings. Shai and Nickeil are only 52 days apart.

They lived together and played high school basketball together at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Gilgeous-Alexander went one-and-done at Kentucky. Alexander-Walker went two-and-done at Virginia Tech. SGA was the 11th pick in 2018. NAW was the 17th pick in 2019.

Alexander-Walker was traded from the Jazz to the Timberwolves at the deadline, along with veteran guard Mike Conley.

Alexander-Walker averaged 5.3 points in 29 games for the Wolves.

Gilgeous-Alexander was asked after the game Wednesday if he’s looking forward to going against his cousin.

“Absolutely,” said SGA, cracking a smile. “Always fun playing that guy.”

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Lu Dort vs. Anthony Edwards

Both are built like bulldogs, fitting of where Edwards attended college.

Edwards is a 6-foot-4, 225-pound offensive force. Dort is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound fire hydrant.

Going from guarding Brandon Ingram one night to Anthony Edwards the next speaks to Dort’s defensive versatility. Ingram wants to shoot over you. Edwards wants to truck through you.

Edwards, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, averaged 24.6 points while shooting 46% from the floor, including 37% from 3-point range this season — all career highs.

The Timberwolves averaged 113.8 points per 100 possessions with Edwards on the floor, and 108.6 points with Edwards off the floor. Granted, Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns missed a lot of time, but it’s Edwards who fuels Minnesota’s offense.

He’s due for a big bounceback game after a miserable 3-of-17 night against the Lakers.

It won’t be easy against Dort, though.

According to NBA tracking data, Dort defended Edwards for 25 minutes in the regular season. Edwards scored 26 points on 11-of-24 shooting. Edwards had 13 assists and five turnovers in those minutes.

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Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns (32) passses the ball over Oklahoma City's Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (50) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Minnesota Timberwolves at Paycom Center in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022. Minnesota won 116-106.

Timberwolves bully ball vs. Thunder small ball

The Thunder can’t match Minnesota’s size, and it likely won’t try to.

In the first game of the season, the Thunder started Kenrich Williams and Aleksej Pokusevski in the frontcourt against Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert.

OKC would love to have Williams back, but he’s out after season-ending wrist surgery. Pokusevski is out with a knee contusion, but Poku likely wouldn’t play Friday even if healthy.

The Thunder will likely start rookie center Jaylin Williams against Gobert, assuming Gobert is back.

And that leaves … Jalen Williams on Towns?

J-Dub is strong at 6-foot-6 and could try and push Towns out of his spot. Towns can really shoot the three, but that might be preferable instead of Towns bludgeoning the Thunder inside.

That would mean Gilgeous-Alexander starts on Conley, leaving Josh Giddey on Kyle Anderson. If Towns catches in the post, Giddey could leave Anderson or Taurean Prince to double Towns.

The Thunder could also try to knock the Wolves off balance by throwing a zone defense.

Both teams are going to try to get to the basket. The Thunder and Timberwolves rank seventh and eighth in percentage of points scored in the paint.

How to watch Thunder vs. Timberwolves in NBA play-in tournament

TIPOFF: 8:30 p.m. Friday at Target Center in Minneapolis (ESPN)

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This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Thunder vs. Timberwolves: Matchups to watch in NBA play-in tournament