April 16, 2018, 1:27 am
Perspective in this series is going to be key. The Rockets are the best team in the NBA, the heavy favorites to handle their business in this series. The Wolves are a team full of deficiencies and inexperience with some of their best players. It took all 82 games to secure a playoff spot for this team, and they just barely got by on their home floor to assure even that outcome.
This, probably, wasn’t the year the Wolves were going to succeed in the playoffs. It’s not supposed to be. This was the year to get everyone’s feet wet and get that mentality the team needs to have on a nightly basis to win in this league. In the grand scheme of things, this was just the beginning for the team before they come back next year with a deeper roster, an improved scheme and that “been there before” mentality. A win or two this series would be icing on the cake.
That being said the Wolves were excruciatingly close to opening this series with a win and perhaps getting the attention of everyone across the league. Instead the Wolves have everyone’s attention for all the wrong reasons. They came up short and it hurt because the opportunity was there for the taking with better execution down the stretch.
Whether it was not getting Towns the ball in the number of mismatches he had throughout the game, favoring contested mid range shots early in the clock, poor defensive execution closing quarters, or the final shot of the game, many of the Wolves’ decisions were heavily scrutinized, and deservedly so. It was obvious what team was the inexperienced, discombobulated bunch and the team that was on the same page with one another.
Yet the Wolves were a final shot away from sending the game into overtime. They had a chance to steal Game 1 on the road versus the top-seeded Rockets and let it slip through their fingers, yet instead of feeling jubilant about their competitiveness, it feels more jaded because these are all issues that have cropped up all season.
Again, it’s all about perspective. This is a learning experience. Sure guys like Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague have been through this before, but the future of the Wolves has always rested in the hands of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and this game showed how important a little playoff experience matters.
Towns had one of his worst games of the season with eight points, 12 rebounds, two assists and a block, shooting just 3-of-9 from the field, 0-of-2 from 3-point and and 2-of-4 from the line. Defensively he was a non-factor on Clint Capela (24 points) or on help defense.
KAT was clearly feeling the butterflies early in the game as he was rushing all of his shots in the opening quarter and missing layups that he would normally make. When the double-teams were coming he wasn’t making quick nor crisp decisions with the ball, and it carried over to his defense where he often found himself late getting back, unable to shake off a poor decision or missed shot.
An additional wrinkle that Towns wasn’t able to solve was the Rockets’ switches. All season the Rockets have switched on nearly every pick-and-roll, and against the Wolves it’s no different. They are not afraid to have Chris Paul, James Harden or Eric Gordon switched onto Towns, or any other Wolves’ big for that matter. If Towns, or whoever, posts up they bring a double and are content leaving many of the Wolves’ poor 3-point shooters open.
The Wolves didn’t burn them in the four regular season games (8.5 3-pointers per game) and they were confident they would continue that trend here. It was a smart move as the Wolves made just eight 3-pointers and rarely (if ever) took advantage of the pick-and-roll switches. Tom Thibodeau is notoriously stubborn with his adjustments, and tonight was no different.
Adjustment number one: Feed the KAT
Here's a compilation of KAT getting a mismatch on the switch and then either slinking to the corner or not getting the ball. Sometimes the guards don't even look at him. I'm not even a Wolves fan and I'm heated about this. pic.twitter.com/hgyYKcjB7F
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 16, 2018
Throughout the game Towns would have a guard switched onto him but the Wolves hardly sought him out. Part of this is certainly on Towns himself. He needs to get stronger in establishing post position, a problem that has plagued him in his career. He often gets into position, but takes too long to set up, making it tough for the entry passers to set him up.
The ball handlers are at fault here as well, though. Many times Towns was waived off in favor of the guard taking his defender off the dribble, but normally end up taking a contested mid range shot because the Rockets’ bigs are active defensively contesting shots.
This is also on Thibs and the coaching staff. The number of times guards would waive off Towns was staggering, almost as if there was something in the film that they saw and were trying to exploit. Thibs was often seen directing traffic, including having Towns clear out, but it rarely paid off.
A number of factors led to Towns getting just nine shots, including some excellent Rockets defense. This isn’t going to cut it if the Wolves are trying to win some games here, though. Towns had the seventh lowest usage rate on the Wolves, a number that absolutely needs to increase.
Wolves Game 1 usage:
Butler 15.6% <—
Towns 14.2% <—
— Justin Phan (@jphanned) April 16, 2018
The only players to see a lower usage were Nemanja Bjelica and Tyus Jones who played six and seven minutes respectively, and Taj Gibson, the other victim of the switch.
Despite all of this the Wolves were hanging in there with the Rockets all the way through. Houston shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc (10-of-37), allowing the Wolves to have a fighting chance. Not much separates these two teams offensively when you take away the 3-point shooting, and the final score indicated that.
Neither team played their best game of the season, but the Rockets were able to get the contribution from their star player while the Wolves were not, and that ended up being the difference in the game.
James Harden was in MVP form with 44 points, eight assists, four rebounds, two steals and seven 3-pointers. He shot 15-of-26 from the field and 7-of-9 from the line.
Meanwhile the Wolves couldn’t get anything from Towns, as mentioned above, or Butler, who scored 13 points with five rebounds, three assists and two steal on 4-of-11 shooting. Butler had the chance to send the game to overtime, but his final shot left a lot to be desired.
— Kevin Brand (@KBranded) April 16, 2018
The unnecessary spin, the foot on the line, the air ball, it was just all bad. This has been a theme for the Wolves this season as late game execution has lacked, typically replying on a Butler isolation that results in a nearly impossible fade-away shot attempt. Sure if it goes in, it would be amazing, but flare is not the goal here.
It’s a valuable opportunity that the Wolves are in the playoffs and exciting to watch, but frustrating at the same time to see the same old habits in play. The Wolves weren’t going to change their style overnight, but clearly some adjustments are necessary for their next game. If the first 83 games are any indication, those adjustments may take some time to play out.
Perspective is key. Try to enjoy the moment, even if they make you want to tear your hair out doing it.