April 15, 2018, 6:23 pm
You wake up to the alarm clock going off. It’s been about seven months since you went to sleep. After watching a few games in the opening week of the NBA, you decided to rest during the regular season and wish to jump straight to the playoffs (maybe waking up after midnight to peek at the trade deadline moves).
For years it’s been a safe call with the Golden State Warriors and the LeBron’s (whichever city he temporarily resided in) dominating their respective conferences, and little variance up and down the standings. The playoffs, and even the offseason, has been where most of the action takes place.
You roll over, grab your phone to check the playoff matchups and surprise! The Wolves are in the playoffs?! The Pelicans made it too, and the Jazz somehow finished fifth. The Process finished ahead of the King? We the North looks down upon them all!
This year there was non-stop NBA action with new blood planting their flag, game-changing injuries and an excellent rookie class contributing to one of the better regular seasons in recent memory. There were plenty of unexpected results, but perhaps most shocking of all is seeing the Rockets with the most wins in the league, ahead of the Warriors.
As the eighth seed in the Western Conference the Wolves face the daunting task of the number one seed. After just assuming the Warriors locked that up before the season started the Rockets busted through and took hold, finishing seven games ahead of the Warriors.
It may sound like a blessing, not having to face the Warriors, but in reality this was the worst matchup the Wolves could have drawn. The Rockets were the only team in the West the Wolves did not beat. They were swept in four games, losing by an average margin of 15.8 points per game.
The Wolves were 13-9 against the other six playoff teams.
Houston’s offense is the carrying force for this team. They finished the year with a 112.2 offensive rating, just behind the Warriors’ 112.3 for tops in the NBA. Against the Wolves their offensive rating was astronomical at nearly 130.
The Wolves were helpless against the downpour of 3-pointers from the Rockets, with Houston making more than 17 per game in their four meetings, while the Wolves made just 8.5 per game. Outside of that most of the numbers for both teams are surprisingly close. Rebounding, field goal percentage, assists, turnovers are tight, which is to be expected given the Wolves have one of the better offenses in the NBA as well. Their 110.8 offensive rating ranks fourth. The Wolves simply have struggled to contain the shots beyond the arc.
It’s no easy task as the Rockets play that style by design. They draw and kick to the arc more than any other team. In transition they seek 3-point shots. It’s a team mandate and they all stick to it. When they aren’t shooting three’s, they have two of the best isolation players in the NBA with Chris Paul and James Harden.
They are one of the toughest teams in the NBA to defend and the Wolves matchup poorly with them, particularly at the power-forward position. The Wolves run Taj Gibson out there and the Rockets almost always counter with a deep shooting threat, and Gibson has a hard time getting out to shooters consistently.
Ryan Anderson and P.J. Tucker have particularly been a major thorn in the side. Anderson has made 12-of-24 of his 3-pointers versus the Wolves this season, while Tucker is 10-of-18. The good news? Anderson is expected to miss this opening game. Tucker is still healthy, though, and is a far superior defender to Anderson.
Nothing will be easy for the Wolves. Defending the Rockets is a tall task that is probably futile in the end. The best chance for the Wolves is probably to turn up the offensive pace and try to outscore them, which would require a drastic change in philosophy for Tom Thibodeau, and Jimmy Butler.
It might not play out in game 1 (never say never), but the Wolves’ played their style for four games against the Rockets this season and it flat-out wasn’t even close to working. If the Wolves are serious about winning this series they need to change things up a bit. Give Towns the ball as often as possible, run in the open floor, let Wiggins attack the basket, utilize Teague in pick-and-rolls.
It’s likely the Wolves will run out a heavy dose of Jimmy Butler, which is fair. That’s what Thibs brought him here for. Butler has averaged over 40 minutes per game in the playoffs, and with the long layoffs between games it’s likely Butler, and others, will see multiple games with 48 minutes.
But in this matchup, his dribble heavy, isolation offense will get eaten alive by the Rockets. Butler was creating late in the Denver Nuggets matchup and the Wolves were scoring nearly every possession. The Wolves need more of that. A collective team effort with everyone involved and a quickened pace. With some luck, they may be able to pull of a win or two.
That will be the major things to look out for. Do the Wolves make significant changes to their offensive approach? Or do they say “we’re just happy to be here and do our own thing” en route to a four-game sweep?
If you missed the playoff series primer with predictions, full schedule and key statistics, check that out here.
Jeff Teague – PG
Jimmy Butler – SG
Andrew Wiggins – SF
Taj Gibson – PF
Karl-Anthony Towns – C
Chris Paul – PG
James Harden – SG
Trevor Ariza – SF
P.J. Tucker – PF
Clint Capela – C
Ryan Anderson (ankle) – QUESTIONABLE
Luc Mbah a Moute (shoulder) – OUT
Where: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
When: 8:00 pm CT
How: Fox Sports North and TNT