The Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves seemed to be two teams on similar paths; young rosters filled with high draft picks to develop with new coaches.
While Minnesota’s youth seemed to be further along and the Timberwolves were considered an upstart team to begin the season, Los Angeles has adapted the quickest with its new pieces gelling under coach Luke Walton.
The two teams get their first chance at each other Sunday as each will play the second game of back-to-back situations.
The Lakers (6-4) showed their growth again on Saturday night in New Orleans, cruising to a 126-99 victory against the Pelicans. Los Angeles has won five of its past six games.
"I think our guys love competing," Walton said. "I think they feel more challenged in the second half to go get it done. It’s almost as if when the game starts, you know we have 48 minutes to get it done. Obviously, we don’t want that . . . but it’s a process."
Under coach Tom Thibodeau, Minnesota has struggled to open the season, especially on the defensive end. The Timberwolves (2-6) lost at home to the league-leading Los Angeles Clippers 119-105 on Saturday night, giving up 21 fast-break points to Los Angeles and allowing the Clippers to shoot 52.6 percent from the field and make 11 of 24 3-pointers.
"Right now we’re not consistent enough," Thibodeau said. "We have to build the right habits. Defensively it’s hard to win when you give up 119 points."
Defensive improvement was expected under Thibodeau for a team that has long struggled to stop opponents. The transition is proving to take time. Minnesota has allowed 119 points in two of its past three games. Opponents have scored more than 102 in all but one game.
The Timberwolves did get point guard Ricky Rubio back in the lineup on Saturday after he missed five games with a sprained right elbow. Rubio had seven points, six rebounds and six assists in the loss.
"I’m trying to find a rhythm, trying to find how to run the team too," Rubio said. "First game back after a couple weeks, just get the rust off."
Minnesota’s talent has shined at times on the offensive end. The Timberwolves have two players averaging more than 20 points per game in forward Andrew Wiggins (23.8) and center Karl-Anthony Towns (22.1). Guard Zach LaVine was also above the mark before he was held to 15 points on 7 of 15 shooting on Saturday.
Wiggins struggled against the Clippers’ league-best defense on Saturday. He scored 22 points but was constantly harassed and shot just 8 of 24.
The Lakers had no trouble shooting Saturday against New Orleans, particularly from Los Angeles’ guards and bench.
Jordan Clarkson scored 23 points and Williams added 21 for the Lakers, who entered the game leading the league with 48.8 points per game from their bench.
"Me and Lou are going to be real aggressive coming in. We’re trying to do a good job of leading this second group, bringing the energy, scoring the ball, pushing the pace," Clarkson told the Associated Press. "Coach gave that to us. That’s our role and that’s what we’re going to do."
Including starters DeAngelo Russell (22 points) and Nick Young (15), the Lakers’ backcourt accounted for 81 points on 31-of-51 shooting, including 15 of 25 from 3-point range.
"We got some great guards — we got some killers," Russell said. "It’s up to us to go out there and maintain it and do it every game."
Los Angeles rookie Brandon Ingram left Saturday’s game with a sprained ankle but told the Associated Press he could have returned if the game was closer.
Of course, these are two teams used to integrating high draft picks. Towns was picked No. 1 overall a year ago, one spot ahead of Russell. In 2014, Wiggins was the top pick by Cleveland before being traded to Minnesota. The Lakers took Julius Randle seventh overall.
Ingram was this year’s second pick and the Timberwolves went with Kris Dunn at No. 5.