MINNEAPOLIS — In something that has become a rarity all season, the Lakers initially followed their defensive scouting report.
With the Lakers facing a Minnesota Timberwolves team that features a versatile big man (Karl-Anthony Towns), a versatile wing (Andrew Wiggins) and a dynamic playmaker (Ricky Rubio), the Lakers narrowed their priorities on how to defend Minnesota’s three best players. Lakers coach Luke Walton considers Towns and Wiggins as “players that can get 30 [points] on any given night.” Walton views Rubio as “more of a facilitator,” matching the league-wide perception that his passing becomes much more dangerous and consistent than his shooting.
“With our defensive schemes right now,” Walton said, “what we try to do is take away one thing.”
But as the Lakers tried to take away one thing, they wound up giving up everything. The Lakers lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves, 119-104, on Thursday at Target Center with Towns, Wiggins and Rubio scoring mostly anytime they wanted. Rubio posted a career-high 33 points while shooting 12-of-20 from the field and 4-of-5 from 3-point range and adding 10 assists. Towns added 32 points on a 11-of-22 clip and nine rebounds. And Wiggins contributed with 27 points while going 9-of-20 from the field and 8-of-10 from the free-throw line.
Yet, Walton became more upset with how the Lakers defended Rubio than how they defended Towns and Wiggins for one specific reason.
“Towns and Wiggins are players you can play as good as you want on them defensively. They can still find a way to get 25-30 points,” Walton said. “I’m not saying we did a great job on them defensively but it’s different than the  that Ricky got on us.”
That’s because Walton found the team’s lack of defensive communication playing a significant part in fueling Rubio’s hot shooting night.
Rubio opened the game logging 13 points while going 5-of-6 from the field and 3-of-3 from 3-point range on shots Walton said “he got wide open.” Walton observed Rubio fooled defenders on a series of pump fakes, including against D’Angelo Russell, Corey Brewer and Larry Nance Jr. Though Rubio still set up teammates, most notably to Wiggins for an alley-oop lob, Rubio threw off the Lakers by attacking the basket, pulling up for mid-range jumpers and hoisting shots from the perimeter.
“It’s tough. It’s something that happens once in a while,” Clarkson said. Guys make shots like that. When he is making those shots, it’s tougher to guard him. He doesn’t really do that. When he does that, he spreads the floor out for them. Defensively, we definitely had to do better communicating. But we were trying to force him into taking those shots and getting a lot of help. He just made them tonight.”
This is not the first time Rubio made his shots against the Lakers. He also posted a previous career-high 28 points in the season-opener of the 2015-16 campaign. Though Rubio has fought inconsistency with his scoring during his six-year NBA career, he has posted 19 double doubles in points and assists in the past 36 games.
“It’s tough because he’s also such a good playmaker. When you have a playmaker knocking down jumpers, he makes it real challenging on the defense,” Walton said. “Ricky wants to give the ball up. If you commit to taking away his shot, he has no problem taking that extra pass. It’s definitely much more challenging when he’s hitting like that.”
The Lakers faced other challenges in defending Rubio. Russell observed that Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau has a “system with a whole offense that’s tough to guard.” Russell admitted facing challenges adjusting toward defending at the shooting guard spot since he has to worry about defending pick-and-roll coverage and offering help. And, frankly, the Lakers hardly expected Rubio to score as he pleased.
“He played really well. obviously. We didn’t have an answer for him,” Russell said. “He was hitting shots we didn’t expect him to make.”