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Rockets 126, Wolves 108: Drifting Out of Orbit

The Wolves drop one to the Rockets for their ninth loss in the last 15 games.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into tonight, the Houston Rockets were 26-1 when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela all played together. That didn’t bode well for the Wolves since each of those three players was active in tonight’s matchup at the Target Center.

The Rockets are at the forefront of the focus on 3-pointers taking the league by storm. Their brand of basketball represents the epitome of the league’s sudden all-in approach to pace and space, and it proved difficult for the Wolves to contain all night.

For Minnesota, the divisive Jeff Teague got off to a strong start tonight, which was a boon in many ways for the Wolves early on. He made two 3s in the first quarter — the kind where he doesn’t hesitate and look around four times before he decides to shoot — in addition to drawing a charge on James Harden. On top of that, his probes into the paint were pointed and purposeful, resulting in a couple nifty dimes to help give the Wolves the lead early on. Teague finished with 25 points, five rebounds and eight assists.

There were some curious match-ups happening on the court throughout the entire game. The Rockets placed Harden on Taj Gibson all night, which made for an interesting dynamic on the court. The Wolves likely would have exploited this a little more, but Harden’s post-up defense (and overall defense, really) has improved quite a bit this season. Additionally, the Wolves were switching most screens in an effort to eliminate the Rockets open looks, which brought about some wonky match-ups on the other end of the court and led to some miscommunication later on.

While the Wolves held the lead early on, Houston went on a 20-3 run in the second quarter to take the lead. Despite not connecting on many of their threes in the first half, the Rockets found other ways to score. Their guards were able to find players like Clint Capela and Nene in good position, which goaded the Wolves into committing a lot of fouls underneath the basket. Those big men also controlled the offensive glass early on, adding to the points they accumulated in the paint.

For a team that has struggled with transition defense all season, this Rockets team seemed to expose the Wolves even more than usual. In D’Antoni’s system, Houston is great about getting the ball up the floor after a made basket, trying to take opponents off guard by treating their half-court set like a fastbreak. And when you place so many deadly 3-point shooters on the court at once against a team that’s been awful at defending the three, bad things are bound to happen.

At the end of the first half, two of the Wolves’ gunners, Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Crawford, were ice cold, combining for 0-13 from the field. Wiggins specifically seemed disengaged all night. His awareness was aloof on defense and his drives to the basket were half-hearted on offense.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The start of the second half saw much of the same, with Teague and KAT leading the charge for the Wolves, which obviously was not enough firepower to hang with Houston. Despite the Wolves missing everything from outside shots to bunnies inside, the Rockets still weren’t able to pull away definitively until the fourth.

Somehow at the end of the third quarter the Wolves found themselves within four points even after an incredibly underwhelming performance on all accounts. In the final quarter, Towns went on a tear, pulling in crucial offensive boards and putting up second-chance points (he finished with 35 points and 12 rebounds), but it wasn’t enough to keep up.

Ultimately the math wasn’t in Minnesota’s favor in this one. Ryan Anderson found his footing behind the arc in the fourth quarter, hitting back to back 3s to put the Rockets up by 10 with 9:30 remaining in the game. From there the Rockets started connecting on their deep open looks, and before you knew it they were up 16 with the game out of reach.

At the end of the day, the Rockets just have too many weapons on offense. You know what they’re going to do every time down the floor, and yet they still manage to get the precise shot they’re looking for in the paint or behind the arc nearly every single possession. They finished with 22 made threes compared to the Wolves’ six.

It’s crystal clear after losses like this that Minnesota is a league behind teams like Houston and Golden State. Making the playoffs this season (presumably) is a gratifying step forward, but the Wolves are still drastically behind the arms race taking place at the top of the Western Conference.

Stray Observations

  • Ryan Anderson killed the Wolves from deep tonight, finishing with 21 points off the bench on 6-10 from three.
  • Taj is such a versatile defender, and it shows when the Wolves play teams like this. He can get switched onto James Harden on the perimeter and it’s almost no ground lost for the defense. He really is a major key to this team’s success this season.
  • Wiggins didn’t connect on a field goal until there was four minutes left in the game. Yikes. The drive clearly wasn’t there for him tonight, and that’s problematic coming against one of the top-tier teams this league has to offer.
  • Minnesota has now lost nine of its last 15 games. With such a contentious playoffs race happening in the middle of the West and teams like Utah emerging on the fringes, the Wolves desperately have to get it together after the All-Star break.