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