April 23, 2018, 11:42 pm
All season long, Tom Thibodeau has been criticized for his lack of adjustments, or the slow nature of their development. So when this series progressed, it was a welcome sight that the Wolves were not only making game-to-game adjustments, but effective ones at that.
To combat the James Harden and Clint Capela pick-and-roll that tore them to shreds in Game 1, the Wolves made proper adjustments to the P&R defense and neutralized that aspect of their offense for the next two games.
In general the defense on screens improved and the Wolves aggressively attacked the ball handler. Defenders were fighting over the screens and taking away the 3-point shot, while the bigs were cutting off the paint, for the most part.
In Game 4 the defense started out similarly enough. The intensity was high and the players were even starting to get a little bit chippy with one another. The Wolves were down one point at halftime, 50-49, and were certainly in the head of the Rockets. Harden was struggling from the field once again, shooting just 4-of-14 at the half (starting 0-of-7) and the team as a whole was hitting just 38 percent of their shots.
The Wolves had their fair share of mistakes, but they were the aggressors and forcing a physical game, which was clearly bothering the Rockets.
Coming out of halftime, though, the Wolves inexplicably switched up the defense. The bigs started sagging in the paint, while the on-ball defenders were going under screens. The Rockets were quick to exploit this and started to get hot from the outside.
All of a sudden, the Rockets could hardly miss, and their offensive machine found the oil they had been lacking this entire series. A one-point halftime deficit turned into a 31-point deficit after the Rockets put up 50 points in the third quarter alone.
The team collevtively shot 61 percent from the field, making nine 3-pointers and all 13 of their free throws. Harden was 7-of-10 with 22 points and three 3-pointers by himself, after struggling mightily to that point.
It was the second most points in a quarter in an NBA playoff game ever, and it may have set the tone for the Rockets going forward, however long their run may last.
For all the adjustments Thibs would refuse to make in the regular season, the one he didn’t need to make may have cost the Wolves the series. Once the defenders started going under screens, giving the ball handlers enough space to get comfortable, it was game over. They hit a few shots, built a double-digit lead and from there looked like the 65 win team from the regular season.
The Wolves exposed the Rockets, in a way. They didn’t allow them to get comfortable and play their game to a point where they were clearly a tight bunch. Once Houston got some breathing room, though, they settled right in and put on a show. Even in a 2-1 series deficit, the Wolves had the Rockets on their heels.
One bad, yet historic, quarter was all it took to let them off the hook. Now the series shifts back to Houston, and down 3-1 the Wolves have a mighty hill to climb.
As for some of the adjustments on Houston’s side that were highlighted in the pregame, namely how they would handle Karl-Anthony Towns, the Rockets continued to bring a double team on him, but it certainly wasn’t as aggressive as the first three games. Instead of Chris Paul drawing the matchup in the post, the Rockets instead favored Harden in that role.
Instead of bringing an instant double team, they brought a soft double and often not until KAT put the ball on the floor. That is if KAT was able to get the ball in the post at all. Once again Towns and the Wolves had trouble getting on the same page. Whether it was KAT in the wrong spots or unable to seal off Harden, or the entry passer had a bad angle, it was the same mess that plauged the Wolves in Game 1.
Add some early foul trouble for Towns (he picked up two fouls in 90 seconds) and he was never able to get into a rhythm. Towns finished as the leading scorer with 22 points, adding 15 rebounds and two assists to his line, but nine of his points came in garbage time when the game was well out of hand.
This game had the makings of an old-school dogfight through the first half and potentially historical implications if the Wolves were able to pull it off. Unfortunately they found themselves on the wrong side of history, and now face a win-or-go-home scenario for the remainder of the series.
The Rockets have their old groove going back to their home court while the Wolves are in desperation mode. The Wolves know the Rockets can be beat and they have the formula, but they also know first hand they have the slimmest margin for error. It took just one quarter for the Rockets to dominate the Wolves. If they want to extend this series further, they can’t get caught off guard like that again.