For the first time ever, we have ourselves a Playoff Preview! It is weird to do this, that is for certain. Your Minnesota Timberwolves, the 8th seed, will take on the Houston Rockets, who had the best record in the NBA finishing 65-17. They didn’t lose often. The Wolves have an uphill task trying to contain James Harden, the guy who should be this season’s MVP. Before we start talking about Harden, lets look at the schedule.
Game 1: MIN @ HOU Sun 4/15 8:00pm CT
Game 2: MIN @ HOU Wed 4/18 8:30pm CT
Game 3: HOU.@ MIN Sat 4/21 6:30pm CT
Game 4: HOU @ MIN Mon 4/23 7:00pm CT
*Game 5: MIN @ HOU Wes 4/25 – TBD
*Game 6: HOU @ MIN Fri 4/27 – TBD
*Game 7: MIN @ HOU Sun 4/29 – TBD
A quick refresher on the playoff format, since it has been 14 years. First team to win four games proceeds to the next round. The * above indicates if necessary.
So first, the Houston Rockets. The Rockets are led by James Harden and an aging Chris Paul. They are filled with a bunch of shooters along the perimeter and a great defensive center in Clint Capela. They are led by coach Mike D’Antoni, who is known for being the Mastermind behind the high-powered Suns offense back when the Wolves used to be competitive. This Rockets team has ultra-adapted to the modern NBA by shooting a ton of 3s. They are the first team ever in NBA history to attempt and make more 3pt field goals than 2pt field goals. Let that sink in. They shoot and make a lot of 3 pointers to keep things simple. If the Wolves want any chance in this series, it will be to take the 3 pointer away. No one has really figured out how to do that quite yet.
How have the Wolves performed against the Rockets this season?
Game 1: 1/8/18 L Wolves 98 @ 116 Rockets
Game 2: 2/13/18 L Rockets 126 @ Wolves 108
Game 3: 2/23/18 L Wolves 102 @ 120 Rockets
Game 4: 3/18/18 L Rockets 129 @ 120 Wolves
Wolves have lost all 4 games against the Rockets this season, the only team in the Western Conference they were unable to beat this season. Many people remember the 3rd Game as the game Jimmy Butler was injured in. The 4th game the Wolves played without Jimmy Butler and were down by over 20 points before making a late comeback in the 4th only to fall short.
How do the teams match up?
Well for starters, the Rockets lead the league in 3pt attempts with 42.3 attempts per game and the Wolves attempt the least in the league at 22.5. The Rockets average making 15.2 a game while the Wolves average 8 made 3’s. That puts the Wolves at a 21-point deficit just from a 3-pointers made differential. This is the biggest matchup gap for the two teams and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Great teams typically do something great, and for the Rockets it is their 3-point shooting.
The interesting thing to watch will be pace and transition. In the regular season the Rockets were 14th in pace while the Wolves were 22nd, despite their youth. The Rockets, while not necessarily known for their defense, do have four players who average over a steal a game, with Harden and Paul averaging 1.8 and 1.7, respectively. The Rockets are a middle of the pack transition team though, so they won’t mind slowing things down and meeting the Wolves pace. Luckily for the Wolves, they are amongst the best in terms of turnovers committed and will need to keep them down to win.
For the Wolves, their 47 win season came in part of Jimmy butler missing 28 games this season, so they aren’t a traditional 8 seed. While many expect the Rockets to sweep the Wolves, I do expect the Wolves to put up the fight of a 4 or 5 seed. The Wolves don’t lack experience outside of Towns and Wiggins. Even in the experience of the young pack leaders, they gained a lot of on the job experience playing for their playoff lives over the last few months.
If the Wolves want a chance in this series, they will have to push the pace. Pushing the pace will help expose the Rockets poor defense and forces the Rockets to speed up the pace, in turn potentially lowering the number of 3-point attempts and potentially getting the Rockets out of their groove. The Wolves defense will have to step up in a big way as well. Thibodeau’s defensive genius will have to come out in this series to give the Wolves a chance. Throwing out different looks each game and not being predictable will be huge. Switching on screens and containing penetration will be something the Wolves will need to get comfortable doing quickly.
The Rockets run a smaller lineup with a SF usually playing PF so that they can stretch the floor. The Wolves will need to take advantage of this. Bjelica and Gibson will benefit from this situation since Belly struggles in guarding SF’s and Gibson is versatile enough to guard bigger SF’s. It will stretch the floor for the Rockets but also gives the Wolves an opportunity to play small as well, which is probably a bad idea. But due to lack of depth, Thibodeau has been seen playing a lot more 3-guard lineups which shouldn’t give the Wolves an advantage or a disadvantage against the Rockets, since they do the same usually. The main difference is when the Wolves have KAT and Gibson on the floor together in which it should be a good thing for the Wolves.
There is also a guy the Wolves need involved in order to succeed in this series…
Perfect Transition. Karl-Anthony Towns. Key to the Wolves success, whether it is the regular season or the playoffs. Not sure why this isn’t obvious either. Run the offense through KAT. Simple. Get him involved. As previously stated, they have an advantage inside. Capela is a great defender, but then that means a Small Forward like PJ Tucker will need to guard the crafty low-post vet in Taj Gibson. If the Wolves can establish offense through KAT, it will certainly open of the floor for Gibson and the wings.
It will be interesting to see how the Wiggins and Butler match up against Harden and Ariza. Wiggins has a good amount of length over Harden if the Rockets choose to but the longer Ariza on Butler. The Wolves will likely have both Wiggins and Butler guarding Harden throughout the series, but Harden will get his.
The Rockets bench is what will likely cause most of the problems for the Wolves. While Luc Mbah a Moute is out for the series, there is plenty of firepower (pun intended) off the Rockets bench that have killed the Wolves in the past. Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Gerald Green have all murdered the Wolves in the past. If the Wolves can try to play some defense and Thibs doesn’t have Jamal Crawford guarding Gerald Green and Derrick Rose guarding Ryan Anderson, we might be able to survive.
The Wolves are finally in the playoffs. Many of us are just happy to be here. That said, the Wolves are heavy underdogs coming into the series. It will be an uphill battle. The Wolves can’t afford to make mistakes and need to actually run something semi-sophisticated on offense. They will need to also throw different defensive looks at the Rockets. I don’t think either happen which is why I expect the Wolves to be happy if they can take one game from the Rockets. The experience will be paramount regardless for Towns and Wiggins. They need a taste of the playoffs. There will be some shock factor starting the playoffs but when nervous, just look at this recent photo of James Harden…
The Timber Rebuilder.