Minnesota has a Long Way to Go

After two tough games, the Timberwolves have a lot of work to do coming back to Minnesota for games three and four.

After a dramatic end to the season, the Timberwolves spirits were high. They earned the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 13 years, they had two All-Stars and were running out the leagues fourth-best offense. The regular season matchups against the Rockets hadn’t exactly gone well but that didn’t matter because Minnesota was in the playoffs again and anything could happen. That mindset has come to fruition. Unfortunately, the “anything” that is happening is what most expected, the Rockets absolutely destroying, dismantling, and demoralizing the Timberwolves.

Game one was surprisingly and perplexingly close. It never really felt close but regardless the Timberwolves only lost 104-101. This was one of the strangest games of the year as the Timberwolves were led by none other than Derrick Rose. I want you to know that it hurt me more to write that than for you to read it. Rose shot 7 of 14 from the field while recording 16 points and four assists off the bench while the stars had disappointing nights at best. Jimmy Butler, still recovering from his knee injury and is nursing a right wrist injury, recorded just 13 points on an uncomfortable four of eleven shooting line. Jeff Teague shot just four of nine but coughed up five turnovers and Karl-Anthony Towns might as well have not been out there as he recorded just eight points on nine total shots and consistently seemed disinterested in posting up or manipulating the consistent mismatches. Quick side note, Towns is partly to blame because he really needs to work on his lower body strength as he truly struggles to establish a consistent position in the post. More troubling though was that this seemed to be a directive from the coaching staff. Towns was waived out of the post by the ball handler frequently after not establishing position but he also would dart straight for the perimeter after getting the switch from the pick. This had to have been a coaching directive where they would have their quicker guard try and take the Rockets center off the dribble with their shooters spotting up on the outside. The issue with this is that Towns is their best shooter and also one of the most offensively dynamic big men in the game so taking him out of the post where he is on a smaller defender and planting him in the corner to rarely receive the kick-out is probably not the best plan of attack. The Timberwolves were able to keep it relatively close despite James Harden putting on a show with 44 points (7 of 12 from three), eight assists, and four rebounds. Harden put the team on his back, rare occurrence for him in the playoffs, to overcome the rest of the team shooting 12 percent from three and Chris Paul forgetting that it’s not the 2014 playoffs against the Thunder to eke out a win.

Game two was an entirely different story. James Harden shot two of eighteen for 12 points. Holding the likely MVP to that line has to equal a win. I mean how badly does a team have to play where they don’t win in this scenario, it’s a dream. Well, the Timberwolves decided to play about as poorly as possible in every other area of the game as they got run off the floor in a complete drubbing of a 102-82 loss. Barely scoring 80 points in an NBA playoff game is unacceptable, looking at you Cleveland, and almost impossible to comprehend. The Timberwolves shot just 38.8 percent (27.8 percent from three), gave the ball away 16 times, and had measly 15 assists. It’s bad when a player has more turnovers than assists but when the team as a whole does, it is beyond unacceptable. Towns forced shots early and then disappeared entirely to end up with just nine shots again. Wiggins continued to lead the team in inefficient shot attempts. Butler played tough defense but was clearly hampered by his ailing wrist and Crawford and Rose continued to shoot contested off-balance mid-range jumpers. There was little to no ball movement and even less ball security. After a strong defensive first quarter, the Timberwolves barely participated in the second quarter. Even though Harden presented a disastrous line, it didn’t matter.

Now the series heads back north to Minnesota with the Timberwolves down 0-2. They were close to stealing game one and then proceeded to play like basketball was their least favorite sport in game two. The series looks bleak and like an inevitable sweep but there are some positives that can be taken away though. I know, I was doubtful too but if they can string some consistency together don’t be surprised if the Timberwolves avoid a sweep (yes I realize how sad that statement sounds).

The first quarter of game two couldn’t have gone much better than it did defensively as the Timberwolves held the Rockets to just 18 points on 20 percent shooting while also forcing five turnovers. They did it by playing the best pick-and-roll defense they have all series. While the Rockets switch everything on defense, the Timberwolves try to avoid that approach at all costs. When Towns’ man is setting the screen, he often lays back to try and cut off the potential for the attack at the rim. Gibson, however, often goes out to hedge the pick and contain the ball handler. They are more comfortable if Gibson does have to switch which allows him to be more aggressive on the perimeter. In the below clip Gibson jumps out to cut off Harden making a move to the right. Harden quickly recognizes this and quickly tries to split the defenders. This is something that he frequently will have success at and has abused the Timberwolves in many instances. In this play though, Wiggins does a nice job of fighting through the screen and meeting Harden at the quickly vanishing opening. They are able to squeeze off Harden and force the turnover which results in an easy fast-break dunk.

 

Conversely to Gibson, Towns has laid back in the paint when involved in the pick-and-roll. As Capela sets the screen for Ariza Towns lays back towards the lane inviting the drive. Wiggins does a decent enough job fighting through the screen to stay on Ariza’s hip and eliminate the chance for the shovel pass to Capela on the roll. On the weak-side, Gibson does a great job of cheating over towards the paint to also take away the option with Capela. Tucker then slides down to set a screen on Teague to free up Paul in the corner in case Ariza throws the cross-court pass. This is never an option though as Towns meets Ariza halfway to the rim so his only option is to drive. Towns then jumps straight up to force the tough shot attempt that results in a miss.

This effort level and executing all of the little things is vital to compete with a team that is so deadly all over the floor. When this attention to detail and communication lacks, the entire defense can unravel. This was evident in the second quarter as the Rockets put up 37 points on 50 percent shooting with no turnovers. The Rockets are one of the best in the league at the pick-and-roll as they rank third in the league averaging .934 points per possession, per Synergy. When defending these sets the defense has to execute at every level. When they don’t, the below happens. The Rockets run a quick slip screen with Paul who gets in Butler’s way just enough to trip him up for a second. Since Jones hedges aggressively, Butler has time to recover, but Jones is now way out of position on Paul. Harden then kicks it to a wide-open Paul who has the ability to do essentially whatever he wants from this point on. Jones doesn’t retreat straight to the paint to cut off the drive so he is now completely taken out of the possession. Gibson then over rotates and leaves Ariza wide open in the corner who ranks in the 80th percentile on open catch and shoot situations.

To minimize the deadliness of these type of plays, the Timberwolves should have just switched from the start. Unfortunately, they have avoided doing this all season which has constantly created easy opportunities for the opponents. Since they didn’t switch, Gibson should have stayed on Ariza in the corner while Towns stepped to Paul on the drive. Wiggins then should have collapsed on to Capela while Butler slides down to the opposite corner on Tucker and Jones retreats back to Harden. I know it sounds like a lot but in order to play a high-level defense, these are the types of things that teams have to do. When they don’t execute teams are able to create easy opportunities. We’ve seen spurts of really good defense from the Timberwolves this year but they continue to struggle to put it all together.

As the Timberwolves defense started to falter their offense was barely sputtering along as they turned the ball over frequently, took horrible shot attempts, and barely moved the ball. After just nine shot attempts in game one from Towns, he came out in the first quarter and forced the issue. His five shot attempts where well covered and unnecessary to take. He then proceeded to attempt just four shots for the rest of the game. Yes, the Timberwolves best offensive player has had back to back games with just nine shot attempts against a team that switches everything. He needs to work harder to establish position but the game plan to have him on the perimeter as a drive and kick option isn’t working. I understand he is the team’s best shooter but that shouldn’t be how he is used every possession. The Timberwolves need to actually run some actions other than a weave near mid-court that doesn’t accomplish anything. To add to the offensive struggles, the contested mid-range jumpers from Crawford and the out of control layups from Rose aren’t helping anything.

The Timberwolves are in a rough spot. They almost stole game one to only go on to get embarrassed in game two. They’ve been able to hold the league’s top-rated offense to an average of just 103 points by heavily contesting the outside shot attempts of the Rockets. They have shown flashes and spurts of defensive excellence but in order for it to matter, they will need to string it together for long periods. The offense goes stagnant too often and the ball movement becomes nonexistent. They need to be able to get their All-Star center involved and focus on taking high-quality shots. The Rockets have shown vulnerabilities but the Timberwolves haven’t been able to take advantage of them yet. They have some serious issues to correct to ensure this series goes back to Houston but by no means is it out of the question.

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