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    So far in this series the course has gone, relatively, as expected. The top-seeded Houston Rockets won their two games at home to open the series, and the Minnesota Timberwolves were able to step up and win their home opener in a city that hasn’t seen an NBA playoff game in 14 years. Sure, the directions that got us here were a bit abnormal and unexpected, but a 2-1 series lead in favor of Houston seemed like a good bet coming in.

    Here is where the series can get really juicy, though. This Game 4 is the most pivotal game. It’s the difference between the Wolves heading back to Houston with their backs against the wall, needing to win a road game just to survive, or going in with new found confidence and a chance to steal one away and put a ton of pressure on the heavy favorites.

    Game 3 was a celebration 14 years in the making for the fans, but for the team it was a chance to try something new. After testing the waters in the first two games, the Wolves figured out what went right, and what needed to be adjusted.

    Starting with what went right: The Wolves’ pick-and-roll (P&R) defense continued to build off their improvement from Game 2 into Game 3. The Wolves have aggressively mixed up their looks on James Harden in the P&R.

    With Gorgui Dieng and Taj Gibson defending, they have generally forced Harden away from the paint and getting him backpedaling away from the basket. Jimmy Butler has been able to aggressively go over screens and recover quickly on Harden and stifle the play. Below is a best-case scenario of one such instance.

    The benefit here is it keeps Harden and Paul out of the paint, where they’ve been picking the Wolves apart. If executed right Butler, or whoever the primary on-ball defender is, can recover in time and negate the play.

    The problem with this coverage is it leaves the screener open for a pop. With Ryan Anderson returning in Game 3 it creates an issue because he’s a knock-down 3-point shooter at 38 percent for his career, and went 12-of-24 against the Wolves in the regular season. Aggressively cutting off the ball handler leaves an open jump shot just momentarily, especially when there’s no help defender nearby.

    Dieng recovers as best he can, but Anderson is too quick and gets his shot off in time. Anderson shot 4-of-6 from 3-point range, and after missing the first two games adds another dimension to the Rockets’ already potent offense.

    The Wolves have also been using a drop coverage, typically with Karl-Anthony Towns. When the P&R comes, KAT typically drops back into the paint and defends either the roll or the drive. In Game 1 this led to a number of easy layups and dunks for Clint Capela as Harden was unfazed by KAT’s presence. Towns was typically indecisive on who to press up on, which led to him guarding no one, or deciding too late and contesting when the play is already over.

    So, to combat this, in Game 2 Towns focused on preventing Harden from making a play. He was aware of Capela but keyed in on Harden’s drives and slowing him down enough for Butler, or whomever, to recover. This carried over into Game 3 as well as the Rockets shied away from Capela even more in favor of kick-outs, pick-and-pops or one-on-ones.

    The Wolves’ P&R defense has been an issue for most of the season, and in Game 1. But in the two games since, they have found ways to force the Rockets into more favorable matchups for their defense. Watching how Houston responds will be one key, but it will likely involve getting Anderson hot and finding Capela again.

    Another thing that went well for the Wolves, at least in Game 3, was their 3-point shooting. They shot 15-of-27 from 3-point range after making just 13 in the first two games combined.

    With Houston aggressively shutting down Towns by bringing double teams at every chance and forcing him away from the low block, the Wolves simply could not respond in Games 1 and 2 by making perimeter shots, so Houston kept bringing the extra man.

    The Wolves needed to get some of that pressure off Towns, and Game 3 was likely a best-case scenario in that regard. They made their first few shots from deep, but the Rockets continued to attack Towns with double teams and dared the Wolves to keep making them. Credit the shooters for making them, but also not hesitating pulling up with confidence.

    A problem for the Wolves all year has been passing up open shots and instead getting into the paint or take a mid-range shot, often resulting in a bad outcome. The Rockets let the Wolves play into the trap in the first two games, with expected results, and let the Wolves continue to make that mistake as long as they could.

    With a statement like that in Game 3, the Rockets have to make a decision. Do they keep blitzing Towns with extra bodies, leaving open 3-point shooters on the perimeter? Or do they change the defense up and leave Towns one-on-one with Capela?

    Considering the options, history says that the Rockets are likely better off continuing to pester Towns and force the Wolves to catch lighting in a bottle twice in a row. Towns utterly dominated Capela in the regular season when the Rockets let him go solo, with a 134 offensive rating against Houston on the season. Conversely the Wolves made the fewest 3-pointers in the NBA and their best deep shooter is Towns, while the rest of the players in the rotation are meager, at best.

    Andrew Wiggins, who made 4-of-6 from deep, has made four or more 3-pointers in a game only 16 times in 330 career games (including the postseason), and is shooting just 33 percent this year. As a team no one on the Wolves makes more than 1.5 3-pointers per game.

    The Rockets likely keep the pressure up on Towns, but if the Wolves can once again shoot against the odds early on, expect Houston to adjust quickly. Or perhaps the Rockets have another, unforeseen trick up their sleeve.

    Lineups:

    Jeff Teague – PG
    Jimmy Butler – SG
    Andrew Wiggins – SF
    Taj Gibson – PF
    Karl-Anthony Towns – C

    vs.

    Chris Paul – PG
    James Harden – SG
    Trevor Ariza – SF
    P.J. Tucker – PF
    Clint Capela – C

    Injuries:

    Justin Patton (foot) – OUT

    Luc Mbah a Moute (shoudler) – OUT

    Media:

    Where: Target Center, Minneapolis, MN

    When: 7:00 pm CT

    How: TNT and Fox Sports North

Fantasy News

  • Damian Lillard
    PG, Portland Trail Blazers

    Damian Lillard put forth a valiant effort with 29 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and two threes in Friday's 113-136 loss to the Lakers.

    Even as the Blazers continue to scuffle, Lillard is locked in as an elite fantasy talent. It's looking increasingly unlikely that the Blazers make the postseason this year but, A: Never count out Lillard and B: He doesn't seem like the kind to accept a shutdown. We're a long way off from that point, thankfully, and you can continue to enjoy first-round value in the meantime.

  • Hassan Whiteside
    C, Portland Trail Blazers

    Hassan Whiteside had another productive game with 17 points (8-for-12 shooting), 13 rebounds, three steals and a block in 32 minutes on Friday night.

    Whiteside is rolling along in fantasy land even as his on-court lapses continue to harm the Blazers. We wouldn't expect him to finish at his current top-35 standing so there's a bit of a sell-high window, though the numbers he's bringing back in blocks and rebounds might change the calculus since you probably won't be able to replace them in a trade.

  • Kent Bazemore
    SG, Portland Trail Blazers

    Kent Bazemore logged 25 minutes in Friday's loss to the Lakers, notching 10 points, two rebounds and a 3-pointer.

    Bazemore is staring at a much heavier workload with Rodney Hood now out for the season and Portland completely devoid of other viable wing options. He's been a top-100 guy in starter's minutes in the past, so he's a pickup in all competitive leagues.

  • Anthony Davis
    PF-C, Los Angeles Lakers

    Anthony Davis and LeBron James both torched the Blazers in Friday's road win.

    Davis put up 39 points (12-for-21 FG, 13-of-15 FT), nine rebounds, two steals, three blocks and a pair of 3-pointers while James had 31 points (11-of-23 FG, 5-for-7 FT), seven rebounds, eight assists, a block and four threes. They're alright at this.

  • Alex Caruso
    SG, Los Angeles Lakers

    Alex Caruso played 24 minutes on Friday night, posting eight points, three assists, a steal and a three.

    Caruso got some extra run with Rajon Rondo departing early because of hamstring tightness, and given the likelihood that he misses some time you can consider Caruso a potential pickup in deep leagues.

  • JaVale McGee
    C, Los Angeles Lakers

    JaVale McGee finished Friday's win with 13 points (6-of-7 shooting) and two blocks in 15 minutes.

    McGee isn't nearly as fun to rock with as he was last season but he's still blocking shots and boosting your field goal percentage enough to return late-round value in 12-teamers. Dwight Howard is doing the same thing with more boards and slightly fewer blocks, as he had five points, 10 rebounds and two steals tonight. Neither is a must-own in 12-team leagues.

  • Danny Green
    SG, Los Angeles Lakers

    Danny Green had a lackluster showing, to be polite about it, on Friday with a 3-pointer, five rebounds, a steal and a block in 21 minutes.

    Green is just a late-round guy and doesn't have a ton of upside given that he's only getting 25.5 mpg on the year. He's worth holding onto in general, but a drop won't hurt you that much. The same goes for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had five points, five assists, a steal and a 3-pointer in 27 minutes.

  • Kevin Love
    PF, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that the Cavs are prepared to listen to trade talks involving Kevin Love.

    The Cavs simply have no use for Love, who can be a series-shifting player as a second or third option on a good team. Cleveland is predictably seeking young players and future draft picks, but it remains to be seen if they'll get much considering Love is still owed $90 million over the next three seasons. That's not inconsequential, and most teams in position to get pushed over the top by adding Love to the mix also don't have the ability to add such a big financial commitment to their books easily. While Love would be bumped down the pecking order on a better team, he might also end up playing more games. We won't go too much deeper than that until Love starts getting connected to specific suitors.

    Source: ESPN

  • DeMar DeRozan
    SG, San Antonio Spurs

    DeMar DeRozan's 3-point binge continued in Friday's 105-104 OT win over the Kings, as he hit three more triples on his way to 15 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and two steals.

    DeRozan has now hit five threes in his last four games after hitting zero in over a full year. That obviously won't keep up but DeRozan is back in the top-50 area after scuffling early in the year. He's about as reliable as they come.

  • Jakob Poeltl
    C, San Antonio Spurs

    Jakob Poeltl returned to the bench on Friday with LaMarcus Aldridge back but still delivered three blocks in 18 minutes.

    Poeltl also tallied 13 points on a perfect 5-of-5 from the field and a less-perfect 3-of-5 from the line. He's now climbed up to top-170 value on the year and should be on any rosters where fantasy GMs are short on blocks. In the past two weeks he's been a top-60 player.