Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (7-18) vs. Houston Rockets (20-7)
Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7:00 pm CST (TV coverage on Fox Sports North)
Why: To find out if the Rockets can extend their nine-game winning streak or if the Wolves can finally win back-to-back games for the first time this season.
The Wolves return to the Target Center tonight to host the Houston Rockets, winners of nine of their last ten. The Wolves haven’t played since Tuesday in Chicago, where they overcame a 38-22 first quarter deficit to collect a major road win against the Bulls. The Wolves did stay busy during their time off, with players and coaches kicking off the #SeasonOfGiving by taking part in the annual Holiday Shopping for Kids event. It’s a fantastic tradition that the team participates in every year, and it’s a small reminder of what is really important during the holiday season:
"Everything that matters about this season is all around us. We just have to stop & shine a light on it..." https://t.co/IgQEla28vV— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 16, 2016
Back to basketball...Tuesday’s game marked only the sixth time this season that the Wolves held a team to under 100 points, and my guy Dane Moore did his best Zach Lowe impersonation this week to break down why exactly the Tom Thibodeau defense is currently not working.
In short, the Wolves currently have no understanding of how to defend the pick-and-roll under their new coach. As Dane illustrates (with GIF’s!), the Wolves lack numerous components necessary to properly defend under Coach Thibodeau, including recognition and trust. While the current on-court results are disastrous (the Wolves rank 27th in defensive rating, 26th in opponents points in the paint, and 25th in opponents 2nd chance points), the main optimism lays in the belief that with additional time and repetition, Thibs will be able to get through to the young pups and turn this situation around. As Dane writes, “Tom Thibodeau has not changed, it is his personnel that has.” (Seriously, go read that article...it’s brilliant).
As for tonight’s opponent, this will be the Rockets fourth game of the week, and the second night of a back-to-back. Before packing their bags for the frigid temps of Minneapolis, the Rockets attempted to burn down the Toyota Center with their three-point shooting:
Tonight vs. Pels, Rockets set an NBA-record for 3-pointers made (24) & 3-pointers attempted (61) in winning their 9th straight.— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) December 17, 2016
As you may or may not know, this new version of the James Harden-led Rockets look a tad different than last years. This version is coached by “Mr. 7 Seconds or Less” Mike D’Antoni, and to help placate D’Antoni’s style, the Rockets replaced the front court of Donatas Motiejunas and Dwight Howard with a more D’Antoni-friendly pairing of Ryan Anderson (who signed a 4 years/$80 million dollar contract this summer) and Clint Capela. Daryl Morey didn’t stop there, bolstering his backcourt by bringing in the sharp shooting Eric Gordon (who is somehow only 27-years old) for 4 years/$53 million dollars. The early returns on all of these summer transactions have been nothing short of basketball brilliance.
Since naming James Harden his de facto point guard this offseason, D’Antoni’s team has soared to the top of the ranks in nearly all offensive metrics. The Rockets are currently second in the league in points per game (113.1), second in true shooting % (58.6), third in offensive rating (111.9), fourth in assist percentage (62.7%), and ninth in pace (100.38). Furthermore, this Rockets team attempts 39 three-pointers per game, which is nearly six more attempts than the second place team (Cavs, 33.3) and nearly TWICE as many attempts as the last place team (Bulls, 19.6).
Similar to our solar system revolving around the sun, this Rockets offense revolves entirely around The Beard. Harden’s usage rate is currently sixth in the league (33.1) and he is posting career highs in rebounds, assists, and eFG%, all while playing the fewest minutes per game (36.7) since his arrival in Houston five seasons ago. Harden is currently second in the league in triple doubles (6), trailing only Russell Westbrook (12). Add in career highs in three-pointers attempted/made for both Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon (who is currently 2nd in the league in three-pointers made behind only Steph Curry) and you have the makings of a 2016 version of D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams.
“And now, your starting lineups...”
Expected Starting Lineups
PG - Ricky Rubio
SG - Zach LaVine
SF - Andrew Wiggins
PF - Gorgui Dieng
C - Karl-Anthony Towns
PG - Patrick Beverly
SG - James Harden
SF - Trevor Ariza
PF - Ryan Anderson
C - Clint Capela
Timberwolves: Nikola Pekovic (ankle) is OUT.
As we always do in game previews, let’s take a look at how the Wolves and Rockets match up using the Four Factors. Reminder, the Four Factors are effective field goal percentage (eFG%), turnover percentage (TOV%), offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), and free throw rate (FTR).
Factor / Wolves / Rockets
eFG% / 50.0% / 55.6%
TOV% / 14.9 / 15.9
ORB% / 27.6% / 26.9%
FTR / .301 / .266
I mentioned this before, but this entire offense runs through James Harden. At 55.6%, the Rockets are currently second in the NBA in eFG%, behind only the Golden State Warriors. Both teams aggressively attack the offensive glass, with the Wolves and Rockets currently sitting third and fourth in ORB%, respectively. In terms of FTR, the Wolves currently find themselves in fifth place, while the Rockets are in the bottom third of the league (20th). More specifically, James Harden is averaging 10.2 FT attempts per game this season, while all other Rocket players are averaging just 12.8 combined. Basically, shut down James Harden and you shut down the Rockets (I know I know...easier said than done).
As always, there is no room in my previews for pessimism. While James Harden and Mike D’Antoni have teamed together to create beautiful basketball poetry in Houston, the Rockets are playing their third game in four nights (second night of a back-to-back), while the Wolves have been off since Tuesday. Add in some rest, extra practice time, home cooking, and a shot of eggnog into our basketball blender and you (hopefully) get a Saturday night home win worth watching.
PREDICTION: Wolves 111, Rockets 106