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Wolves at Rockets: Keeping up with the Joneses

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves (29-17) at Houston Rockets (30-12)
8:30 CST
TNT

In one of the few games that the Wolves have on national TV this year, they will be playing the fast-paced Houston Rockets, who will be without a few players due to the incident against the Los Angeles Clippers.

That skulduggery and tomfoolery aside, the Rockets are an extremely important matchup for the Wolves and are one of the best teams in the Western Conference. We expected this out of the Rockets, as their addition of Chris Paul over the last offseason vaulted them to the de-facto Warriors challenger in the West.

Now that Kawhi Leonard is out indefinitely, the Wolves have an actual shot at the 3rd seed. This would mean that, theoretically, the Wolves could be matched up against the Rockets in the 2nd round of the NBA Playoffs. We certainly do not want to count our chickens before they hatch here, but it is just exciting to imagine that this is a real possibility.

The Rockets, of course, are a driving force of change in the NBA. The offensive revolution of “Moreyball” has dominated the way that we think about modern NBA offense, building on the success of the 7-seconds-or-less Suns. The Rockets, as well as the Warriors, have determined that they can simply outscore the other teams from beyond the arc.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the Rockets offensive history:

  • 2014-2015: 2680 three-point attempts
  • 2015-2016: 2533 three-point attempts,
  • 2016-2017: 3306 three-point attempts
  • 2017-2018 (about half-way through the season): 1830 three-point attempts

This year, the Rockets are averaging 43.6 three-point attempts per game, making, on average, 15.7 each game. This is about 9 more threes per game than the 2nd ranked team (the Brooklyn Nets) in three-point attempts per game.

James Harden leads the way in this regard, taking a ridiculous 10.6 threes per game, along with Eric Gordon at 9.6 three-point attempts, and Trevor Ariza at 7.2 attempts.

However, the Warriors are not an offense-only team anymore, ranking 13th in defensive rating. Over the offseason, Daryl Morey publicly espoused that if the Rockets had a shot, they were going to take it against the Warriors. With the trade for Chris Paul, they certainly proved they were going for it.

Along with Paul, the Rockets brought on a couple prototypical NBA swingmen in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker. This has allowed the Rockets to mix-and-match lineups depending on their opponent. They can either go big with Clint Capela at center, pull out a defense with Ryan Anderson at the 5, or even throw out the “Tuckwagon” lineup with P.J. Tucker at center, which may be one of the few lineups in the league that could combat the feared Warrior’s lineup of death.

This Rockets team is deep and they are talented. Paul and Harden combined ensure the 48 minutes of Hall of Fame point guard play and Morey has surrounded those two with a bunch of players who can play defense and hit threes. This is a very, very good team.

The Wolves, as we are all too familiar, play basketball the Tom Thibodeau way. Even though the team has the 4th best offensive rating in the league, they only average 22.6 three-point attempts per game, good for 28th in the league. The Rockets are likely going to shoot more than double the amount of threes that the Wolves will tonight. That is a lot of ground to make up.

Where the Wolves can create some extra points is via turnovers. The Rockets have the 16th ranked turnover percentage in the NBA, so look for the Wolves to capitalize on that.

While the Wolves will benefit from Ariza and Green sitting, James Harden is making his return after missing 7 games due to a hamstring injury. It will be interesting to see how Thibs has the Wolves matchup on defense this game, as we would expect Jimmy Butler to matchup against Harden, but that would leave Jeff Teague on Chris Paul. In this case, it might actually help out the Wolves that the Rockets like to stagger Paul and Harden, as whenever Jimmy is out there he can focus on the opposing superstar.

It will also be fascinating to see what the Wolves do when the Rockets go small, although they will be less able to do so without Ariza.

This is one of the best test-cases of the new year to see how far the Wolves have come. In their most recent big games against the Cavs and the Thunder, the Wolves rose to the occasion. Let’s hope it happens again tonight.

Projected Starting Lineups

Wolves

Jeff Teague
Andrew Wiggins
Jimmy Butler
Taj Gibson
Karl-Anthony Towns

Rockets

Chris Paul
James Harden
Luc Mbah A Moute
Ryan Anderson
Clint Capela

Prediction - Wolves 115 - Rockets 113. I don’t like to bet against Jimmy Butler, and the Wolves catch a break here with the suspensions, but this is going to be a close one.