The longest playoff drought in the NBA has ended as the Timberwolves finally made the playoffs. Of course, even though we should certainly celebrate a victorious season (even if they struggled across the finish line), the hard part comes next.
Finishing with the 8th seed, the Wolves now have the matchup that absolutely no one wanted, as they must play the Houston Rockets. The Wolves have lost all four games against the Rockets by an average of 15.75 points.
The Timberwolves play basketball with a more old-school style. The team relies on a lot of isolation play, uses two bigs most of the time, and eschews the math-advantage of a three-point heavy approach. If there is a team that exists that can punish the Wolves approach the most, it has been the Rockets.
The Rockets’ style, led by James Harden, has pushed the limits of NBA offense, and for most of this season the Rockets had the most efficient offense in the history of the NBA. Those numbers tampered down, but the Rockets still had one of the most devastating attacks we’ve ever seen. The Rockets almost double the Wolves in three-point attempts per game (42.3 to 22.5).
The other problem is that the Wolves will struggle to push their advantages against the Rockets. The Wolves rely on free-throw shooting (5th in free throw rate), but the Rockets are 6th in the NBA in opponent free throw rate. The Wolves rely on their offensive rebounding (4th in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage), but the Rockets are 3rd in defensive rebounding rate.
Of course, the real issue is the Wolves defense. It is a lot harder to stop one of the most high-powered offenses in the history of the NBA when your defense is terrible. The Wolves have never been able to play defense at a sustained rate this season, outside of a brief stretch in December-January, and ended the season with a bottom-five defense. In the four games against the Rockets, the Wolves had a defensive rating of 129.8, which is, in the Minnesota way, an Uff da. The Rockets effective field goal rate in those games was 60.4.
Watching Harden and CP pick-and-rolls vs MIN, and I think my computer is about to burst into flames. HOU scored 130 points/100 possessions (not a typo) in four games vs MIN— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 12, 2018
A lot of this is due to the superstars on the Rockets, as James Harden and Chris Paul are two of the best guards in the NBA, and their teams roster flexibility. The Rockets, other than getting Paul in the offseason, also added P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute (who will miss this series) to bolster their wing lineups. Add in Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, Ryan Anderson, and Trevor Ariza ... the Rockets are deep and flexible. The Wolves have no real answer for the high pick-and-rolls with Capela rolling or with Anderson popping out. In the four games against the Wolves, Anderson shot 50 percent of his threes while taking 6 per game.
Also, that James Harden guy, he is on his way to the MVP award. The Rockets led the league in net rating (8.5) and Simple Rating System (8.21). 538 NBA’s predictions give them a 44 percent chance to win the title. They are perhaps the only team in the NBA that is constructed to realistically compete against a fully healthy Warriors team, which is plausibly one of the best NBA teams of all time.
This series will be an uphill battle. It is hard to be too optimistic about the Wolves chances in moving on.
Alright, now that we have gotten the negativity out of the way, let’s look at how the Wolves can pull off the unthinkable, or at least win a game.
In the NBA Playoffs, sometimes all that matters is having the best player on the court. The Wolves may not have that, but someone like Jimmy Butler is about as close as most teams are going to get. Of players in the NBA that can theoretically handle Harden, Butler is one of the best possible options.
Before he was injured, Butler was a serious MVP candidate and plausibly could have finished in the top-five in NBA voting. Towns has games where he plays like one of the top 10-20 players in the league. We’ve seen Wiggins rise to the challenge as well. However, getting those performances consistently is the issue, particularly against one of the best teams in the league.
Rising to the Challenge
One of the most frustrating things about watching this team over the last few years is that they can play so well. We’ve seen them do it. Whether it was the stretch last year around the All-Star break or this year from December through January. This team has played like one of the best teams in the league. From December 18th through January 14th, the Wolves went 12-3 and had the best net rating in the league (10.5) and, more impressively, the 6th best defensive rating.
The Wolves also had an impressive win over the Golden State Warriors. We’ve seen them beat some of the best teams in the NBA this year. They have it in them when everything is clicking. We have not seen that team in a while, but it does exist.
It is a bit hard to believe that the Wolves are the “tougher” team, as that is not something that we have really seen out of them historically. However, the “Timberbulls” also employ some of the grittiest veterans in the league in Butler and Taj Gibson. Tom Thibodeau teams were known for over-performing not only in the regular season, but also in the playoffs. Theoretically, the playoffs are the time when the refs start to swallow their whistles and let teams play. That should help the Wolves, particularly against Harden.
However, the Rockets know this about themselves. That is why they went out and got guys like P.J. Tucker and Chris Paul. We’ve also seen the Wolves, namely KAT, Teague, and Wiggins, tighten up in physical games. Anything could happen here, but the Wolves could potentially get an advantage by playing to a few of their veterans’ strengths.
Mostly though, this is about at least slowing down the Rockets juggernaut. It’s a situation that calls for some creativity when it comes to lineups and schemes, something that is not a strength of Tom Thibodeau. I would advocate, for example, playing Taj Gibson and Nemanja Bjelica together up front when Towns is on the bench, but this is not something we’ve seen much of all season.
Either way, it’s going to be fun watching high-stakes games for the first time in a long time. Maybe the Wolves will surprise us all and snag a win or two.