NBA Basketball

Lakers-Timberwolves Preview

Life without LeBron James continues Sunday afternoon for the Los Angeles Lakers when they begin a two-game trip against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Lakers (21-18) were right on the heels of Pacific Division-leading Golden State when they crushed the two-time defending champions on Christmas Day in James' first trip to Oakland, Calif., with his new team.

But James strained his groin in the win and hasn't played since. He's watched the Lakers lose four of five not only to drop four games behind the Warriors and into third place in the division, but back into the thick of a massive pack dueling simply for playoff position in the incredibly deep West.

That group includes Minnesota (18-21), which needs to beat teams like the Lakers as often as possible just to stay in the race.

The teams split a pair of earlier meetings, with each claiming a four-point decision at home. But neither currently resembles the squad that took the court in Los Angeles on Nov. 7.

Not only will the Lakers be without James, who came within a total of three assists of recording a pair of triple-doubles in the two previous meetings, but Kyle Kuzma (bruised back) and Rajon Rondo (finger surgery) also have since gotten hurt.

Kuzma, who averaged 20.0 points in the earlier meetings, was on the flight to Minneapolis and might return before the team's two-day, two-game trip ends Monday in Dallas.

James did not make the trip.

Rondo, who totaled 15 points, 12 rebounds and 18 assists in the two games against Minnesota, also will not play.

Without three key players, the Lakers were beaten 119-112 at home by the New York Knicks on Friday night.

Lakers coach Luke Walton noted after the game that his club needs better teamwork without James in the lineup, and didn't get it against the Knicks.

"Once shots didn't go in (in the fourth quarter), guys start trying to do it on their own," he told reporters. "That's not a recipe for us to win."

The Lakers will be seeing the Timberwolves for the first time since they dealt Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia.

Butler had 32 and 24 points in the first two meetings, with the 32 coming in their 124-120 home win in October.

The Timberwolves also have been without Derrick Rose (sprained ankle) the last four games, and lost one of their newcomers, Robert Covington, to a bruised knee on Monday against New Orleans.

The latter loss is noticeable, standout big man Karl-Anthony Towns told reporters Friday night, on a team that's allowed four of its last nine opponents to score more than 120 points.

"It's a big blow for our team," he insisted. "He's a great defensive player, obviously. The energy and the character and pure passion he brings to the game, for us, is contagious."

Towns contributed 25 points and 16 rebounds to the earlier home win over the Lakers.

He's helped take up the slack for his missing teammates and ex-teammates of late, recording six straight double-doubles in which he's put up at least 20 points and 12 rebounds.

The Timberwolves have beaten the Lakers six straight times at home dating back to 2015.

Updated January 5, 2019

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