The Minnesota Timberwolves and the New Orleans Pelicans played each other less than two weeks ago, but a lot has changed since then.
Most notably, the Timberwolves fired head coach Tom Thibodeau and promoted assistant Ryan Saunders to interim head coach. They won in Saunders' debut on Tuesday in Oklahoma City (119-117) but lost in the final minute to Dallas (119-115) in Saunders' home debut Friday.
The Pelicans' 123-114 victory against the Timberwolves on Dec. 31 in New Orleans started a stretch in which the Pelicans have won four of five. They have their first three-game winning streak since mid-November as they travel to Minneapolis on Saturday in the opener of a five-game road trip.
They'll see a Timberwolves team that is playing at a faster pace than under Thibodeau.
Saunders has been "trying to stress it to us since that first day, just trying to get the ball over half court quicker," guard Tyus Jones told Timberwolves.com. "Letting guys make reads of the defense, playing off one another, sharing the ball, continuing to share the basketball."
This will be the second game of the second half of the season for the Wolves and the Pelicans, both of whom are playing catch-up in trying to reach the playoff spots in the tightly-bunched Western Conference.
Minnesota forward Karl Anthony-Towns said reaching the playoffs is a very realistic goal.
"I have no doubt about it in my mind that we can do that, not only eighth seed, even higher," Towns told StarTribune.com. "It's all about us putting the effort and the energy and bringing that edge every night."
Towns said he has been impressed by what he has seen from Saunders, even though he has been in his new position for less than a week.
"He's exceeded our expectations by margins," Towns added. "He's doing a great job keeping the emphasis on making sure we're being the best team possible. He's doing a great job right now.
"Ryan's more than capable of being a great head coach. We have a lot of confidence and belief in him. Being around Ryan, you realize how positive he is. Just having that positivity around all the time is great. Eighty-two games, there is going to be a lot of ups and downs. But when you have some positivity around like that, it brings you a lot of good energy."
While the Wolves hope the coaching change gives them a lift, the Pelicans are hoping the return of injured starters is putting them on the right track.
Point guard Elfrid Payton returned from a 22-game absence due to a fractured finger when he started in the last meeting with Minnesota.
Forward Nikola Mirotic returned for a 140-124 victory against Cleveland on Wednesday after missing 12 games due to an ankle injury.
"Obviously, when you miss a dozen games, your timing is going to be off," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. "He shot the ball fairly well for a guy that's been out that long, but you can also see he shoots an air ball, which he would never do."
Mirotic made 6 of 11 shots, including 4 of 7 3-pointers, as he scored 17 points in 22 minutes.
"I think (Mirotic's presence) opens up the floor," guard Jrue Holiday said. "His capabilities of being able to shoot 35 feet and the way he play-makes out of that, trying to run them off the line, it definitely makes it easier for us."
New Orleans hopes to get back forward E'Twaun Moore, who has missed the last two games because of a quad injury.
In the last game against Minnesota, the Pelicans overcame the absence of All-Star forward Anthony Davis, who was a last-minute scratch because of illness.
The Pelicans made 14 of 25 3-pointers and the Timberwolves, who had won the last five meetings with New Orleans, made 9 of 28.
--Field Level Media