Can Lakers’ new additions be X-factor in Play-In?

The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina previews Tuesday's Play-In Game between the Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

LOS ANGELES – If they hadn’t already consumed the footage endlessly on social media, the Los Angeles Lakers inevitably viewed a viral moment when they broke down recent film.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert punched teammate Kyle Anderson following a disagreement in a team huddle. Teammates and coaches soon intervened. After missing the remainder of Minnesota’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans in their regular-season finale, Gobert will serve a one-game suspension when the Lakers (43-39) host the Timberwolves (42-40) in the NBA’s play-in tournament on Tuesday (7 pm PT, ESPN). To add more injury to insult, Minnesota ruled forward Jaden McDaniels out indefinitely after suffering two fractures in his right hand stemmed from punching a wall during halftime.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham called the episodes “an unfortunate situation.” Lakers forward Anthony Davis highlighted the significance of Minnesota losing their “top two defensive guys.”  Yet, Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt maintained, “I don’t have any type of opinion on it” for the same reason Ham declined to comment extensively on the ordeal.

“It’s not Lakers business,” Ham said. “We all focus on Lakers’ business.”

But you know what is Lakers’ business? The Lakers acquired three former Timberwolves players prior to this season’s trade deadline that can help with both positional needs and insight about Minnesota.

As part of a three-team deal, the Lakers dealt Russell Westbrook, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones and a 2027 first-round pick to Utah while Minnesota sent Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley to the Lakers.

“Honestly I don’t think we could script it any better,” Vanderbilt said.

It also can’t be scripted any better that the new additions have largely fueled the Lakers’ late-season surge.

No doubt, the Lakers’ success and failure has mostly hinged on whether LeBron James and Anthony Davis could become more durable. But as Davis noted about Russell, Vanderbilt and Beasley, “they’re a big reason why we are today.”

Before the trade deadline, the Lakers had labored to a 25-30 record and sat in 13th place in the Western Conference. Davis missed 26 games amid various injuries. As a reserve, Westbrook mixed flashes of All-Star brilliance with maddening shot selection, defensive lapses and turnovers. It did not help the Lakers lacked enough consistent shooters to clear up spacing for James, Davis and Westbrook to operate.

Since then? The Lakers cemented the NBA’s third-best record (18-8). James and Davis became healthy and dominant. Austin Reaves continued to grow. The Lakers’ ball movement looked crisper. Their outside shooting became more dependable. Their defensive rotations became more organized. Their locker room became looser.

“They tried to do the best thing they could within the system, but we found what we thought was a better fit,” Ham said. “They came in and hit the ground running. A lot of times with the attention that LeBron and AD draws, it makes for an easier transition for these guys in terms of offense and finding their way.”

Vanderbilt believed he and the team’s newcomers elevated the group with “talking.” Yet, their actions became more valuable than their words. Ham praised Russell for how he’s “calm with the ball” with playing at a fast albeit controlled pace while offering dependable scoring and playmaking. Ham gushed about Vanderbilt’s energy and versatility on both ends of the floor. And Ham described Beasley as “one of the best shooters our league has today and a very underrated defender.”

“We came in with some good energy,” Russell said. “The past is the past, and the energy wasn’t where it should’ve been.”

The Lakers expect to bring the right energy against Minnesota. Of course, the primary reasons point to James and Davis. The Lakers expect Dennis Schroder to play after missing the past two games with neck soreness. And the Lakers will likely attract a sell-out crowd in hopes to see the beginning of a deep playoff push.

But the Lakers may also lean on three former Timberwolves players that also participated in Minnesota’s dramatic win over the LA Clippers in last year’s play-in tournament.

“Don’t take this game lightly,” Vanderbilt advised. “Don’t look at it like we got an extra game to play if we lose. You can’t look at it like that. We have to look at it like, ‘If we lose, we go home.’”

Should they lose, the Lakers technically would play on Friday against the winner of Wednesday’s game between the Oklahoma City Thunder (40-42) and New Orleans Pelicans (42-40). Yet, the Lakers prefer the rest and preparation for a possible first-round series beginning on Sunday against the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies (51-31).

To maximize the chances of that outcome, the Lakers have leaned on Russell, Vanderbilt and Beasley for additional tidbits about Minnesota. As Ham said, “they were very vocal; I’ll just leave it at that.”

Vanderbilt sounded more forthcoming about what he has shared.

“I know those guys personally and their tendencies,” Vanderbilt said. “I’m helping these guys with scouting, figuring out their game plan and how they operate. It’s much easier, especially since I got a couple of guys with me that have also been in that system and played with those guys.”

Unsurprisingly, the Lakers have spent much of their time determining how to match up with Minnesota forward Anthony Edwards and center Karl-Anthony Towns.

“They’re obviously the engine of their team. They’ll go as far as those two guys take them,” Vanderbilt said. “So, try to make those guys uncomfortable and be physical from the jump.”

Should the Lakers play that way, Vanderbilt insists the reason has nothing to do with wanting to have a so-called “revenge game.” As Vanderbilt stressed, “it’s not extra motivation for me.” Nonetheless, the Lakers appear more at ease with how their recent acquisitions have both bolstered their roster and provided inside information about their future opponent.

“We’re in a good place,” Ham said. “The only time you should feel nervous is when you’re not prepared. We’re very much prepared.”

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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