April 23, 2018, 6:14 pm
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.
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
Justin Patton (foot) – OUT
Luc Mbah a Moute (shoudler) – OUT
Where: Target Center, Minneapolis, MN
When: 7:00 pm CT
How: TNT and Fox Sports North
April 23, 2019, 1:30 amChris Paul - G - Houston Rockets
Chris Paul had a great Game 4 in Monday's 91-107 loss to the Jazz with 23 points on 8-of-19 shooting with eight rebounds, seven assists, five steals, two blocks and two 3-pointers.
Paul had a nice breakaway dunk late in the fourth, showing that he's still got the hops and his defense throughout tonight was also solid. He brought back some of his vintage layup package, but the Rockets as a whole went cold from deep late in the game and couldn't stop Donovan Mitchell's barrage in the fourth quarter.
April 23, 2019, 1:30 amJae Crowder - F - Utah Jazz
Jae Crowder finally had a strong night offensively in Monday's Game 4 with 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting to go with four rebounds, an assist, two steals and three 3-pointers.
Crowder had 18 first half points which would have been the most he's scored in any game this series. He was on fire to start the first period and his energy levels were much higher tonight. The Jazz finally got a strong game out of Crowder on both ends of the floor and he'll have to keep nailing shots for the Jazz to drag out this series.
April 23, 2019, 1:29 amRudy Gobert - C - Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert logged 24 foul-plagued minutes in Monday's Game 4 and scored four points on 2-of-4 shooting with nine rebounds, two assists, a steal and three blocks.
Gobert was a net-positive whenever he was on the floor tonight and he's getting better at keeping up with Houston's guards on the perimeter. He's blocked several of James Harden's floaters over the past two games and has dominated the paint when he plays, but was limited due to fouls tonight. Derrick Favors (24 minutes, 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting with 11 rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block) more than carried his weight tonight as he kept the Rockets at bay with his suffocating defense inside the paint in the final period of action.
April 23, 2019, 1:24 amClint Capela - C - Houston Rockets
Clint Capela struggled in Monday's Game 4, scoring four points on 1-of-6 shooting with seven rebounds and two assists in 28 minutes.
Capela went 2-for-6 at the line and he was severely limited in tonight's game as he struggled with Utah's physicality. The normal lobs he received from James Harden were much more difficult to control tonight and he had trouble finishing around the rim. We expect him to be much better in the next game.
April 23, 2019, 1:24 amDonovan Mitchell - G - Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell carried the Jazz in their 107-91 win over the Rockets in Game 4 on Monday with 31 points on 11-of-26 shooting to go with seven rebounds, four assists, a steal and three 3-pointers.
Mitchell finally got some help from his teammates tonight as they helped carry the team's offensive burden throughout the first three periods. In the final quarter, Mitchell scored the Jazz's first 13 points and ended up with 19 fourth quarter points. He had a dazzling spin move, some deep triples and a freakishly athletic alley-oop dunk all in the span of 12 minutes and has kept the Jazz season alive for at least another game due to his heroic efforts. Although the team as a whole has struggled offensively, Mitchell showed his superstar potential tonight.
April 23, 2019, 1:17 amRicky Rubio - G - Utah Jazz
Ricky Rubio scored 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting while adding 11 assists, three rebounds, a steal, a block and a 3-pointer in Game 4 on Monday.
Rubio played much better defense on Houston's guards tonight but was still unable to stretch the floor with his shooting as he went 1-for-7 from deep. If he can make incremental improvements on his defensive assignment while hitting a couple more triples, the Jazz have a good shot at extending this series.
April 23, 2019, 1:15 amJames Harden - G - Houston Rockets
James Harden scored 30 points on 8-of-19 shooting with three rebounds, four assists, two steals and six 3-pointers in Game 4 on Monday.
Harden is facing one of the toughest defenses in the league so the shots he makes are difficult. The step-back 3s were on full display tonight, but Harden had difficulty penetrating the Jazz defense whenever Rudy Gobert was manning the paint. Although his shooting percentages were high, he committed eight turnovers as the mid-range territory is one of the hardest to navigate. Gobert is predicting his floaters and Clint Capela couldn't grab and finish the usual lob passes which hampered Harden's success tonight. He's slowly figuring out the Jazz defense and if Capela can return to form we can expect his assist numbers to spike.
April 23, 2019, 1:12 amEric Gordon - G - Houston Rockets
Eric Gordon scored 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting with five 3-pointers, a rebound, an assist and a block in Monday's Game 4.
Gordon started off hot and did all the stuff the Rockets expected him to do, but late in the game he was unable to hit timely shots for Houston. He'll get another crack at some open looks due to Utah's defensive scheme.
April 23, 2019, 12:21 amBlake Griffin - F - Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin may have limped through 28 minutes in Monday night's 127-104 Game 4 loss to the Bucks, but he put up 22 points, five rebounds, six assists and four threes.
Griffin helped keep the Pistons' season alive for almost three quarters on a bad knee before fouling out in the fourth to a standing ovation. He was at significantly less than 100 percent during this series, but it was good to see him lay it all out there as a last-gasp effort for his team. Griffin had a great fantasy season and there should be more of the same as the 30-year-old hopefully returns healthy in 2019-20.
April 23, 2019, 12:10 amReggie Jackson - G - Detroit Pistons
Reggie Jackson scored a team-high 26 points (9-of-20 FGs, 5-of-9 threes, 3-of-3 FTs) with seven dimes, three boards and a steal in Monday's Game 4 loss to the Bucks.
Jackson looked great tonight while keeping the Pistons in front for the majority of the game. However, the Bucks went on a big run in the third and fourth quarters to complete the sweep. Jackson, at age 29, doesn't have a whole lot of upside left, but he's certainly capable of putting together games like this once or twice a month to swing a head-to-head matchup.