April 18, 2018, 5:55 pm
The weirdness of Game 1 hasn’t become more clear after some time to reflect on it the past few days. If anything it has gotten more perplexing upon further review.
Follow up questions with the team provided conflicting opinions on how Game 1 played out, with Head Coach Tom Thibodeau liking what he saw, Jeff Teague thinking they need a different approach and Karl-Anthony Towns playing both sides somewhere in the middle.
The Houston Rockets switch nearly every screen (ball screens, down screens, any of them) and the Wolves’ game plan in Game 1 was to exploit that by matching up small players on bigs. In theory this is a good plan. The Wolves have a number of talented scorers who can create on their own, so exploiting these one-on-one matchups is something they can thrive in.
For a time they did thrive. Teague, especially in the fourth quarter, was able to break P.J. Tucker off the dribble and get to the rim. Derrick Rose used his threat of a drive and get space for mid range shots. Taj Gibson was able to get some easy looks at the rim with the smaller defender on him.
Here Jamal Crawford and Gibson hook up when Tucker and Chris Paul switch. Gibson flashes right to the block. Crawford gets a better angle to pass, and when no help comes for Paul it’s an easy score.
Here Rose attacks Clint Capela off the dribble and finds the open man for a 3-pointer after Tucker has to come help (shout out to James Harden for closing off the lane for the 16 percent 3-point shooter).
Finally Teague gets Nene on the switch and directs Gorgui Dieng to clear out. Teague is able to easily drive by the slower Nene and score at the rim (despite Dieng clearing his man out right into the lane).
From Thib’s point of view this was the game plan working to perfection. He wanted his guards attacking the rim and making plays, while the remaining players were spacing the floor. He likes the advantage his guards have on the Rockets’ bigs. When Houston was switching he lauded Teague’s ability to attack, and it certainly seemed to be the feature of their game plan.
Often the problem was that it seemed to be playing right into what Houston wanted Minnesota to do. Towns was largely ignored and Gibson only received a couple of looks down low on these switches.
KAT was used as a floor spacer in this matchup, which makes sense because he’s the teams best 3-point shooter by a wide margin. If there is any one player on the perimeter the Rockets have to focus on, it would be Towns and his 42 percent mark from the arc.
From Jeff Teague’s perspective, this is exactly what the Rockets want.
Jeff Teague just said the Wolves are playing into the Rockets hands when they use KAT to space the floor rather than having him post
— jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) April 17, 2018
When he was asked specifically about a one-on-one with Clint Capela favoring the Wolves, Teague disagreed that it is a good matchup for him and the team:
“I think that’s playing right into their hands of trying to eliminate KAT. We’ve got to find a way to get KAT the ball against those smaller guys, get some deep seals and get him some easy baskets.”
He is essentially disagreeing with the game plan that Thibs believes is working well. Which is somewhat of a problem when your league point guard is typically the coach on the floor.
Following Thib’s train of thought, it certainly makes more sense to have Towns spacing the floor and Gibson being in the dunking pocket or posting up on the block when the Wolves switch. Gibson is a capable player in the post and is arguably better at sealing defenders at the present time when compared to Towns. The Rockets are then forced to stay home on Towns, as opposed to a situation like this next clip where the Rockets can sink in the paint off 3-point shooters.
The post entry to Towns is cut off by two players (Rose doesn’t get respect from the 3-point line either) and Teague is forced to shoot a long 3-pointer. Towns doesn’t put himself in a great position on the floor to receive that pass, but the lane was clogged anyway with two defenders not having to respect the 3-ball.
Switching Gibson and KAT in this scenario likely leads to a layup. In Teague’s eyes that’s playing right into what Houston wants, in Thibs’ eyes that’s playing right into what Minnesota wants. Which side is right is tough to say, especially when the execution throughout the night was questionable from everyone on the floor.
Teague, Butler, Crawford and Rose were all guilty of taking ill-advised shots, throwing the ball into the stands or fruitlessly driving into a crowd.
On one possession the Wolves had perfect spacing, the switch they wanted (Capela on Teague, Paul on Towns) and plenty of time on the clock. Teague took Capela off the dribble into the lane, had a wide open KAT in the corner (where he’s shooting a blistering 55 percent) and threw the ball away.
Another time Crawford cleared the left side of the court for a pick-and-roll with Towns. Eric Gordon switched onto Towns and was on an island with no help near, but instead Crawford took a couple of dribbles and pulled up for a 20-footer than clanked off the rim.
When the players aren’t executing the game plan, it’s hard to blame the coach. These plays should lead to buckets. At the same time, the coach is the one who puts the players on the floor and directs the matchups he or she wants and that is where Thibs is at fault as well.
If the Wolves want to run a four-out offense, that is perfectly acceptable. In Game 1 there were certainly stretches it was effective and can be easily exploited when an opposing team is switching everything. When the players out there are not floor stretchers, though, it makes it tough to consistently run the offense.
As seen in the clip directly above, Paul does not have to guard Rose on the 3-point line, a career 29.6 percent 3-point shooter (and just 22 percent since leaving Chicago). If the Wolves are fully committed to the four-out offense, the players on the floor need to be able to fit the mold.
Rose was solid in Game 1 with 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting, and even 1-of-2 from beyond the arc. He can still see the floor, but he needs to be in situations where he has the ball in his hands on the pick-and-rolls (in limited spurts). If he’s out there to space the floor, Tyus Jones, a career 34.1 percent 3-point shooter, is a better fit.
The Wolves could also swap out Gibson for Nemanja Bjelica, who shot 41.5 percent this season. Taking Gibson out completely would be a mistake as one of the best defenders on the Wolves, but more than six minutes for Bjelica is necessary, especially if Ryan Anderson returns for the Rockets, who Taj struggled to contain mightily.
It’s a tricky situation for the Wolves. Towns said to the media yesterday that he will accept any role, help the team however he can and follow whatever the game plan is. It’s likely not to change significantly in Game 2.
On one hand the Wolves were in the game through the end perhaps a couple of plays executed right everyone is talking about a different story. Thibs’ game plan almost worked.
On the other hand, will the Rockets really shoot 27 percent from 3-point range again? A major reason the Wolves were nearly left off the hook with their poor execution at times was the Rockets’ lack of 3-point shooting. It’s hard to rely on that again.
It’s tough to say which side is right here, but the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Teague stressed getting KAT the ball more, but also that the Wolves need to mix their looks up more. A game plan that features KAT more all over the floor is likely the answer here. He can be a floor spacer, a monster in the post and a playmaker.
Better focus on the details could have won the Wolves Game 1. It will probably require more firepower for them in Game 2. There’s no easy solution in this situation, but that is to be expected when you’re the eight-seed facing the one-seed. No on said it would be easy.
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
Luc Mbah a Moute (shoulder) – OUT
Ryan Anderson (ankle) – OUT
Where: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
When: 8:30 CT
How: Fox Sports North and TNT