March 18, 2018, 3:39 pm
It wasn’t so long ago that it looked like the Wolves had a shot at a two-seed in the Western Conference. A lot of basketball was still ahead, but the Wolves were coming off a stretch winning 12-of-15 games and sat just a couple games behind the Rockets, who had lost 8-of-15. That was back in January.
Fast-forward to mid-March and the Rockets have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA, winning 25 of their last 28 games and threatening to run away with the top seed in the West, while the Wolves are scrambling to hang onto their playoff hopes, let alone challenging for home-court advantage.
Houston has been barreling through opponents with a high-powered offense and lock-down defense, the latter something they didn’t have in the past and what makes them especially dangerous this season.
No other team over the past two months have been more dominant than the Rockets, who ranks first in offense and third in defense since January 16 (the Wolves rank fifth and 29th, respectively). The breakneck pace they use to play with has slowed, thanks to Chris Paul, but they still get up the most 3-pointers and second-most free throws in the league.
Fully embracing the 3-ball revolution, the Rockets are rarely taking a shot inside the arc unless they are attacking the rim and drawing a foul or an offensive rebound put-back. 52.4 percent of their shots come from beyond the arc, a full 10 percent more than the second-highest rate in the league, and 36.2 percent of their shots come from the paint.
That leaves just 11 percent from the mid range, mostly thank to Chris Paul who’s settling for more jumpers and less drives than ever in his career.
The Rockets are so tough to guard, though, because it’s an endless barrage of 3-pointers, and if teams run them off the line they have the talent to attack the rim and finish. They rank third in the NBA in field goal percentage in the paint and seventh in free throw percentage.
They rank just in the middle of the pack in 3-point percentage, but their philosophy is over time more 3-pointers at a lower success rate out-score more 2-pointers at a higher success rate, and the statistics back it up.
The scary part is the Rockets can adapt to many different styles of offense. They have excellent play-makers on the perimeter and an efficient big-man in the post, with endless wings that can catch and shoot. Elite defensive teams can hardly gameplan for it all, no less the Wolves.
Add in the fact that the Rockets now have above-average defenders at four of the five possessions and they have the formula to take down any team in the league.
For three straight years it’s been the Golden State Warriors marching on to the NBA Finals. The Rockets have the look of a team that can finally put an end to their reign.
It’s tough to lock down one area for the Wolves to key on when playing the Rockets. In three matchups so far the Wolves have been able to compete for a time, but eventually succumb to the overwhelming offensive attack.
In the first matchup they held Harden to just 10 points, but Eric Gordon filled in for 30 points (and seven 3-pointers) off the bench.
In the second matchup the Wolves slowed the 3-point barrage for three quarters before the Rockets exploded in the fourth quarter, making 10 3-pointers in the quarter, and getting abused by Harden and Ryan Anderson.
In the third matchup Clint Capela shot 91 percent and scored 25 points. That was also the game Jimmy Butler went down.
The Wolves have flirted with the Rockets in each matchup, but have been unable to hang around, and each time the Wolves made an adjustment the Rockets went right back and countered with someone else.
There’s a laundry list of things the Wolves can do to pull off the victory. They can try to force guys off the 3-point line and into mid-range jumpers, but run the risk of the defense having to scramble. They can try to hack Capela and force him to the free throw line, but the Wolves are thin enough to start putting guys into foul trouble. They can double Harden and Paul, but there are just so many other weapons.
The best hope for the Wolves is to just keep on scoring. Being able to put some pressure on the Rockets’ defense and slowing the pace down is likely their best chance. Otherwise just enjoy the marvel that is the Rockets offense.
Jeff Teague – PG
Andrew Wiggins – SG
Nemanja Bjelica – SF
Taj Gibson – PF
Karl-Anthony Towns – C
Chris Paul – PG
James Harden – SG
Trevor Ariza – SF
P.J. Tucker – PF
Clint Capela – C
Jimmy Butler (knee) – OUT
Brandon Wright (knee) – OUT
Where: Target Center, Minneapolis, MN
When: 7:00 ET/6:00 CT
How: Fox Sports North and NBA TV