In anticipation of Minnesota’s long awaited bask in the NBA’s post-season glow, we thought it would be good to hear the competition’s perspective on what’s to come.
Darren Yuvan (@DarrenYuvan) writes for the Houston Rockets’ SB Nation site, The Dream Shake; he and I asked each other five questions ahead of Sunday’s tip. You can go see what he was curious about, and my responses, here.
CJ: The Rockets’ regular season effectively wrapped up early. With waning urgency and less playing time given to starters, their offense seemed to take a step back. What do you think about coasting into the playoffs and its implications for the team?
DY: I actually feel the only implications will be a positive one. In seasons past, one of Houston’s biggest issues in the postseason has been that they’ve worn down. This year, however, James Harden has played his fewest minutes since becoming a Rocket. He’s played 400 less minutes this season that last year. He’s played 600 less than in 2016. Trevor Ariza has played 500 less minutes this season. I don’t expect a repeat of those guys wearing down at the worst possible time.
That being said, basketball is a game of rhythm, and the Rockets have certainly been off a little bit offensively down the stretch. I wouldn’t read too much into it, though. Guys have been in and out of the lineup for rest and injury, and this team has shown the ability all season long to turn on the juices when needed. A handful of games after the league’s best record has been clinched won’t outweigh an otherwise full season’s worth of evidence.
I’ve been a big proponent of getting guys some additional rest in the past (and critical of head coach Mike D’Antoni), and I only think it helps them here.
CJ: With the context of a 1 - 8 matchup in which the Rockets are severely favored, what would you like to see from James Harden and Chris Paul to give you peace about their past post-season letdowns?
DY: There’s some serious misconceptions out there about Harden’s postseason play. For starters, since becoming a Houston Rocket, he’s sporting playoff averages of 27.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game. He’s shooting 42 percent from the field, 33 percent from three and turns the ball over 4.6 times per game. Those numbers are virtually indistinguishable from his regular season stats during the same time frame, save a small drop in shooting percentages.
Second, since Harden has become a Rocket, Houston has never lost a postseason series to a team with a worse record than them (Portland and Houston had identical records in 2014).
And third, isn’t winning on the grandest stage all part of the growing process? Very few superstars win it all immediately. Harden is just 28 years old. Michael Jordan won his first title at 28. Hakeem Olajuwon was 31 when he won his first title. Both of those guys were postseason “letdowns” until suddenly they weren’t. There are plenty other examples as well.
The point being that having a bad game in an elimination contest against favored competition shouldn’t outweigh all the good Harden has also done in the playoffs. He’s scored 30+ points 18 times in 45 playoff games, and he pretty much single-handedly carried the Rockets without another legit top offensive performer.
Chris Paul’s narrative is a little different, in that he’s older, has had more opportunities being in the league longer, and had some better help than Harden. But it’s also true that he’s never played alongside someone as talented as The Beard.
So far, they’ve been the perfect foils for one another, and I expect that to be the same in the playoffs. I’m already at peace heading into the postseason.
That being said, anything short of the Western Conference Finals would be a huge disappointment, and if that happens, then I’ll have some major questions to ask as well.
CJ: Karl-Anthony Towns has averaged 35 points and 15 rebounds on 57% shooting over four losses against the Rockets this season. Should slowing him down be their biggest focus on defense?
DY: Well, you would think so, but the Rockets have won all four games against the Wolves, even with KAT putting up monster box lines. Houston can afford, it seems, to have KAT go off and still be in control of the game. The Rockets need to make sure no one else is putting up those types of numbers.
That’s actually a strategy I recall teams using against Olajuwon and the Rockets in the ‘90s. They’d single cover him, and sure, he’s go for 35 or 40, but if you kept everyone else in check, the chance of winning seemed to go up. You still need to score 100+ points to win.
Minnesota’s main issue is that they don’t have anyone to go toe-to-toe with Houston when they’re shooting the three-ball well, while the Rockets do have someone to go toe-to-toe with KAT. Clint Capela averaged 19 and 10 against Minnesota this year, and while those aren’t quite KAT numbers, it’s enough to offset some of the damage Towns does against Houston, with the Rockets still holding the major edge in three-point shooting.
Houston’s biggest defensive focus should be keeping the other Wolves under wraps, because KAT has yet to prove he can beat the Rockets by himself, even at 35 and 15.
CJ: The Rockets went undefeated against the Wolves this year; their average margin of victory was a hair under 16 points. They were dominant against playoff caliber groups all season, but against Minnesota it seemed to be disproportionate. What is it about this team that makes them such a favorable matchup?
DY: It’s the three-point shooting. You have the league’s top three-point shooting team in the Rockets going against one of the league’s worst. Once Houston gets hot, which they inevitably do at some point in just about every game, the Wolves simply don’t have the long-ball firepower to keep up. That’s the main issue. The Wolves are getting mostly twos, while the Rockets are getting mostly threes. The math just doesn’t work out in the Wolves’ favor there.
CJ: What is creeping in the back of your mind as the Wolves x-factor to being more than faintly competitive?
DY: It’s got to be Jimmy Butler. We’ll be seeing a lot of him on Harden, and he did miss one game between these two teams during the regular season and part of another. If he can make The Beard uncomfortable while contributing some additional scoring of his own (he averaged just 16 points per game against the Rockets this year, while shooting just 40 percent from the field, well below his regular averages), we just might see the Wolves makes this a competitive and high-scoring series. For what it’s worth, I do think we see him step up on occasion, just not enough to make a difference in the long run. Give me the Rockets in 5 games.