First Round Preview: Rockets vs Timberwolves

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…

Player Spotlights

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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Jamal Murray – How he Fits with the Timberwolves

A couple weeks ago we entertained the idea of adding Kris Dunn to the Timberwolves roster through the NBA draft on June 23. This post will explore Jamal Murray, freshmen guard out of Kentucky. Nothing clever I can think of for the title on this one, so just going to jump into it.

The thing that makes Jamal Murray considered a lottery pick in the draft is his scoring and shooting ability. He had the highest scoring average of all freshmen with 20 points per game. He is also a tremendous three-point shot. He shot nearly 41% from three this last season. His shot is fluid and can release in a multitude of ways. The fact that he is a Freshmen and contributed this much to a team like Kentucky goes a long way. Kentucky has a reputation for producing great NBA players.

If you didn’t know, floor spacing and the catch & shoot are things the Wolves truly struggle with. Matter of fact, they are among the worst in the league. See this post by Nylon Calculus. While the Wolves can choose between Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray to space the floor, Murray is the catch and shoot talent. Murray has the potential to come off of screens and spot up for a 3-point shot like a J.J. Redick. Murray shot 56% when coming off of screens. He will also have the chance to hang in the corner and spot up threes when Wiggins or Towns are double-teamed and when Rubio is looking to penetrate & dish. Thibodeau loves the corner three and it will likely be Murray’s first task to master that shot, if drafted.

For anyone being drafted in the 5th spot, the hope is that they can come in immediately and contribute. That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be a starter. The only starting spot without much competition would be the power forward position, but there aren’t talented enough power forwards in this draft to take that spot. A guard like Jamal Murray though would need to come off the bench and score. They would need to add to the depth of the team and have someone other than Shabazz Muhammad as the only scoring threat. Murray can absolutely be that. Murray has a high BBIQ and is very aggressive. He is mature beyond his years on the court. It will be interesting to see how that translates in the NBA.

There are some significant issues that Murray has though. The first is his ability on defense. There is a good chance that Murray will never be an adequate defender in the league. He lacks the athleticism to stay with guards in the NBA. This can be an issue if Tyus Jones is on the team. Having scrappy guards who can defend seems to be important to Thibs.

While Murray has the size to play either guard position, he does struggle playing the point guard position with efficiency. He averaged more turnovers than assists and seems to play naturally off the ball. He also has some problems with finishing around the rim, something that doesn’t get easier at the next level. He could get time to develop behind LaVine in his first few seasons in this aspect.

It seems that typically many people will mention Jamal Murray and Buddy Hield in the same sentence. It is important to note that Murray is three years younger than Hield. That is the span of a rookie contract. By the time Murray is the age of Hield, his rookie option will be decided on and he will be a fairly known commodity. The three-year gap could amount for something. Hield did should 5% better in FG% and 3P% on one more three-point attempt per game. Buddy Hield is a better fit for a team looking to win now. It almost seems like the Boston Celtics would be a great fit if they decide to keep their pick.

While the Wolves will be shooting for the playoffs this season, they did earn the 5th-worst record in the NBA with a fairly healthy roster. So the Wolves are hoping to make a significant jump that will be reliant on the improvement & development of their current personnel and on Coach Thibs implementing his schemes flawlessly in his first season. Realistically, the Wolves are somewhere between the 7th-worst in the league and the 7th-seed in the West. The long-term goal for the young core is to win a championship. If that is the case, it may make the most sense to draft a guy that can be molded into that group when making a decision between two guys (Murray and Hield) who have a similar skill set. By taking Jamal Murray, the Wolves get a three-year grace period for a guy who can carve out a role on the team in that time.

In the short term, Murray isn’t doing much. He will need to learn to defend, how to play the point guard, and finish around the rim. He may see time when the Wolves desperately need to spread the floor or need someone to come off of screens to catch-and-shoot. Thibs is not crazy about the ‘baptism by fire’ rule of getting rookies a ton of minutes to develop. He will get them developed in the ways he can. Murray will probably find himself in the corners on the offensive end and move his way up. It may be a couple of years before Murray actually sees significant minutes. It could be a good thing nonetheless. The Wolves may look to bring in a couple free agents who can help boost the Wolves into a winning franchise in the time Jamal Murray develops.

With Thibodeau around, it is clear that Murray will not see a lot of minutes until he can at least hold his own on defense. That may not come until year two or three. But when he does learn to defend, he will serve as a great change-of-pace scorer off the bench or alongside LaVine or Wiggins. It could also could at a time where Andrew Wiggins is seeing some stretch-four in a couple of years. Murray will be able to run his defender off the court like a young Reggie Miller or Ray Allen. He may never be great in that sense but he could definitely bring attention away from Wiggins and Towns.

All in all, if the draft goes Simmons, Ingram, Dunn, Bender, I would first look to trade the pick. My ideal would be to move down to get Wade Baldwin or Timothe Luwawu. If there are no takers for the 5th pick, which seems more and more likely by the day, the decision to pick between Jamal Murray or Buddy Hield will be a reality. I am siding with Jamal Murray because he is better in the catch-and-shoot, is more versatile in what positions he will be able to play, and is three years younger.

Oh What a Series!

While not Timberwolves related – the Western Conference finals was epic. There is a slew of information and analysis on it so will not bore you with that, but just wanted to walk through how crazy of a series this was between the Thunder and Warriors.

It is no secret I was personally cheering for the Thunder. The Thunder have been a favorite for a while. I have always appreciated Kevin Durant and his humbleness. I even had the chance to meet him and sit down and chat with him. He was the most down-to-earth athlete I ever met. Russell Westbrook is a freak and a joy to watch. Serge Ibaka is a guy I would love to play for the Wolves, especially if we can trade the 5th pick for him (dreaming). Randy Foye was one of my all-time favorite Timberwolves. I always felt Steven Adams would be an amazing center in the league. Heck, I was one of the few that had hope Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones would become great NBA players. So I’ve been following for a while.

The Warriors have always been a team that you have to watch. They are history in the making. As an avid basketball fan, they are impossible to ignore, even hate. But what I dislike is how much they brag. They is no need to showoff after every made bucket, unless you’re Mo Speights hitting a three in Game 7 in the Western Conference finals. What I do respect is how they’ve played with all the pressure on them. They have played the second half of the season as their biggest opponent. They even dropped a game to the Timberwolves as home.  To see how they’ve reacted to the pressure of winning 73 games and having the first unanimous MVP has been so fun to watch. Nothing but appreciation for this team.

Jumping to the series, it was like a classic fictional tale about what the NBA could be. Or a Hollywood film directed by Michael Bay. This series was literally a roller coaster. Quick summaries below. Home team is the second team listed each time.

Game 1: Thunder 108, Warriors 102

The Thunder steal game 1! The Warriors lose a game at home, many believed because they finally faced a worthy opponent. It should’ve been the wake up call the Warriors needed. The Thunder were still not a serious threat. But Russell Westbrook and Durant played amazingly. Westbrook racked up 7 steals along with 27 points and 12 assists. KD added 26 points himself with 10 boards. Curry shot terribly with 9/22 from the field for 26 points. That won’t happen every game.

Game 2: Thunder 91, Warriors 118

This is what we expected for most of the series. Stephen Curry with a casual 28 points on 15 shots. How anyone does that is news to me. Not the closest of games so a fairly spread box score. Series is tied 1-1. The Warriors woke up finally. This should go 6 for the Warriors right?

Game 3: Warriors 105, Thunder 133

In Oklahoma where the Thunder dominate. It wasn’t close. The Thunder dominated in the second quarter and it was both offensively and defensively. The Thunder were never very adequate defensively but somehow they emerged with the Mega-death lineup that had Ibaka at the 5 and Durant at the 4. Durant was a defensive juggernaut using his length to slow down the Warriors’ guards. He had 33 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Russell Westbrook added 30 himself with 12 assists. The Warriors got nothing outside of Thompson and Curry. Even then, the splash brothers combined for 5 total threes. Not their best game. Somehow the Thunder are up 2-1. The next game is pivotal.

Game 4: Warriors 94, Thunder 118

Where the drama begins. The Thunder just have an amazing team effort. Roberson scored a career-high 17 points with 12 rebounds and 5 steals. Ibaka had 17 points as well. To add insult to injury, Westbrook chimed in with a casual triple-double with 36 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. The Thunder’s team defense began to look like one of the best in the league. It was a complete team effort for the Thunder that game them a comfortable lead in the series of 3-1. The Warriors for the first time in two years would face elimination in the playoffs. It seemed that the show was over.

Game 5: Thunder 111, Warriors 120

‘We ain’t going home’ from Steph Curry. The Warriors facing elimination at home. If there was a game that the Warriors should win it was this one. It was close but the Thunder were never able to catch up. The Warriors withstood 40 points from Durant and 31 from Westbrook. The Thunder went for the kill to not avail. Steph had 31 and Thompson added 27. The difference was the rest of the Warriors who came to play. The series would be 3-2 and go back to OKC.

Game 6: Warriors 108, Thunder 101

This was a game! The Thunder were up a good amount of the game. It came down to the last two minutes where the Warriors just took the lead and snuck out. It almost felt certain that the Thunder had this one in the bag. But Klay Thompson set an NBA Playoffs single-game record for threes made with 11. He had a huge 41 points ahead of Curry’s 31. This game was the turning point. With the series at 3-3, Game 7 would be one for the ages.

Game 7: Thunder 88, Warriors 96

A historic game 7. The Warriors became the 10th team to come back from being down 1-3 in the playoffs, which seemed like a cherry on top for what they’ve accomplished this season. The Thunder played a great 1st half holding the Warriors to their 2nd lowest point total of the season. But the second half the unanimous MVP stepped up and stole the show The Thunder didn’t have an answer for him. While the Thunder came back to within 4 points in the final quarter, they just seemed to give up. Roberson gave up a wide open three pointer and then they seemed to quick in the final minute of the game. It was incredible to see Curry score his 36 points in a multitude of ways. The Warriors are headed to the finals to defend their championship.

At some point this summer when baseball is all that is happening, there is a good chance I rewatching this entire series back-to-back. It was that good. The Warriors earned their stripes. And now all the speculation begins around where Kevin Durant may land this summer…

 

The Thunder probably did the Warriors a favor. They woke the giant that the Warriors were went they went on their historic run earlier in the season. The Warriors were coasting late in the season chasing the 72-win record, which I repeatedly said would be a huge mistake. That mistake may’ve costed them the season had they lost in game 5, 6, or 7. But somehow they held on and added to an even more dramatic and historic run.

The finals will be a lot of fun to watch. A healthy Cavs team with a hungry Lebron James get a second shot at a title against the Warriors. LBJ has been quietly making history by going to the finals 6 straight seasons. It will be interesting to see how Kevin Love matches up in this series. Not because he is the man we love to hate in Minnesota but because he will be the easiest of the big three to eliminate from being relevant on the floor due to his defensive woes.

See you all in the finals!