Timberwolves Playoff Preview vs Rockets

Minnesota is matched up against the top-seeded Houston Rockets. Here is a review of how their previous matchups went and what they need to fix.

After sneaking their way into the playoffs and earning the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the Timberwolves will be matched up against the number one seed Houston Rockets. The Rockets finished the season with a league-leading and franchise-best 65-17 record. They finished as the league’s second-best offense, the sixth best defense, and the best net rating. The concerns over Chris Paul and James Harden playing together were quickly mitigated as the team had success throughout the year with few if any, hiccups. The supporting cast played their roles perfectly and James Harden performed at an MVP level once again. This will be a very difficult matchup for the Timberwolves but based on their previous matchups, here are some things the Timberwolves will need to focus on to be successful.

Regular Season Matchups

In the regular season, these teams matched up four times with the Rockets winning all four contests, with contest being used in the loosest terms possible here. The Rockets had an average margin of victory of 15.75 points and scoring at least 120 points in three of the four games.

In all four games, Minnesota did a relatively good job of limiting either Harden or Paul from having big games. The issue though was that they routinely gave up big games to role players. This came from overly helping on Harden or Paul which resulted in others being wide open. There were a lot of holes in how Minnesota approached these matchups as the Rockets essentially did whatever they wanted.

Pick-and-Roll Defensive Struggles

The Rockets are one of the most effective pick-and-roll teams in the NBA. They use it in multiple ways to get whatever type of look they want. They will use it to get a mismatch into isolation or as a classic pick-and-roll with the action going to the hoop or by trying to get the off-ball defenders to overextend their help defense and free up a shooter on the weak side. During the regular season, the Rockets scored .93 points per possession with an effective field goal percentage of 50.4, both of which ranked third in the league. The Rockets completely abused the Timberwolves this season in pick-and-roll situations. In the below clip Harden runs the pick-and-roll with Capela. With everyone else spaced out, the two looks are a lob to Capela at the rim or for Harden to score. Once Harden beats Wiggins he sees Towns staying back to take away the lob. Instead of going full speed towards the hoop, Harden changes his speed to unbalance Wiggins and score on an easy floater.

Here we have an example of how the Rockets use picks to create mismatches for easier isolation sets. Harden works the pick twice to make sure that Bjelica gets switched onto him. Wiggins does a poor job of committing on who to guard as he just falls back into the paint. Without communicating properly Bjelica then tries to retreat to his original assignment which results in an open three for Harden.

The Rockets score the vast majority of their two-point shots at the rim. A lot of these opportunities come off of lobs from the pick-and-roll. This easy basket is created by Nene setting a pick for Harden. Dieng then does a poor job of hedging the pick while Butler was already fighting through it. With Gordon in the area as well, setting a secondary pick on Dieng, it creates more confusion and results with three Timberwolves guarding two Rockets. On the bottom of the screen, we see Crawford guarding Green in the corner. Once he saw Nene roll uncontested he should have slid over to interfere with his free path to the rim. Harden recognizes the defensive lapse and throws an easy lob to Nene.

Finally, the below clip shows how the Rockets use their off-ball players when the defense overcommits. The two actions on this possession for the Rockets were either a lob to Capela or a Harden shot. Harden’s vision and basketball IQ allow him to improvise though to create the easy basket. As Harden enters the paint he starts his gather for a shot but also has Capela in his view to see if the lob is available. Instead of shooting or tossing Capela the lob, Harden notices that Butler has collapsed down to the paint and left Ariza wide open in the corner. Harden is able to whip a perfect pass to Ariza for a wide open three.

To have a chance, the Timberwolves need to do a much better job in their pick-and-roll defense. They need to improve their communication and tighten up their rotations. There were far too many examples of missed rotations that resulted in wide open shots. Their best strategy has to be to fight through screens instead of switching.

Offensive Opportunities

Even though the Timberwolves didn’t beat the Rockets once this season, there were some opportunities that they can take advantage of on offense that they didn’t fully capitalize on in the previous matchups. Most notably was Minnesota’s ability to get to the rim for easy shot opportunities. Teague did a great job of worming his way into the paint multiple times each game. He wasn’t the only one either. Wiggins and Butler both saw success when they were able to fully commit to the drive and not pull up for a contested, off-balanced mid-range jump shot. The biggest mismatch was when the Timberwolves were able to get Capela playing defense on the perimeter. Capela is a good rim protector but was exposed when drawn out to the arc. He wasn’t able to keep up and was frequently beat off the dribble. The Timberwolves will need to continue to seek out that mismatch and look to get to the rim as frequently as possible, especially since their outside shooting is so unreliable.

Another aspect of the Rockets defense that presents room for manipulation is their eagerness to double team. In the first four matchups, the Timberwolves struggled with this more than they should have. They frequently turned it over, made a sloppy pass out of it, or completely missed the open teammate. When running the pick-and-roll on the wings, the Rockets frequently tried to trap the ball handler, especially when one of their big men was involved. Minnesota will need to keep their composure and make the smart play. This should result in some easy baskets if the open man is found or the extra pass is made. After a few possessions that end up in scores, this strategy will likely change which will allow the Timberwolves to seek out those mismatches created after the pick. The Rockets also frequently doubled whenever anyone from Minnesota posted up. Capela was the only one the always let play one-on-one defense in the post. Minnesota is one of the best post-up teams in the league so the Rockets really focused on creating mayhem when they tried to post-up. Similar to the pick-and-roll double teams, the Timberwolves were late to recognize the right play to make and either turned it over or had to pass out to a teammate that couldn’t do much with it. They will need to recognize that the double team is coming much quicker so they can either make a move to score, find the open man cutting from the weak side, or kick it out to the open shooter.

Injuries

Unfortunately, injuries will play a big role in this series. Jimmy Butler has only played three games, two with restricted minutes, since returning from tearing his meniscus. He isn’t completely healthy but there is no way that we don’t see him out there. He will play a huge role as he will be the primary defender on Harden. This is important and desperately needed because Harden has shot just 33 percent when Butler was the closest defender this year. He will have his work cut out for him and it is concerning how he will hold up with a knee that isn’t fully healthy.

The Rockets were dealt a tough blow as the MRI on Luc Mbah a Moute’s shoulder confirmed a dislocation and that he will be out for the entire first round. This has been one of Mbah a Moute’s best seasons as he has been a vital role player for the Rockets. Mbah a Moute has been a reliable perimeter weapon and a lockdown defender. Not having him will be a huge relief for Butler and Wiggins as they won’t have to deal with his tenacious defense. The Rockets have built a solid bench consisting of multiple versatile wings but losing an impact player who averages 25 minutes will always hurt.

The main goal for the Timberwolves this year was snapping that nasty 13-year playoff drought. Now that that has been checked off the list, the passing out of participation trophies can cease. It will be extremely difficult to knock off the league’s best team but not impossible. The Timberwolves will need to play much better defense and take advantage of their opportunities on offense when they present themselves. They have the talent to complete a major upset in the first round. Having the talent and maximizing it are completely different things though. Will we see the Timberwolves team that clicks on all cylinders as the leagues fourth best offense or will we see the fatigued, uninterested team with a horrible shot selection? While a full-on upset is likely off the table, don’t be surprised when the Timberwolves steal a couple games.

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