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Rockets 104, Timberwolves 101: Missed Opportunity

Despite a poor outside shooting performance by the Rockets, Minnesota failed to steal Game 1.

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody has really expected the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves to knock off the top-seeded Houston Rockets in the first round of these Western Conference playoffs.

Houston is coming off a 60-win regular season paced by a high-octane, modern offense built on shooting almost exclusively threes and layups. Over 42 percent of Houston’s shot attempts in the regular season were threes, which ranked tops in the NBA. The Rockets were last in mid-range shot attempt percentage.

So when the Rockets went 10-for-37 from three-point range in Game 1, it presented a glowing opportunity for the Wolves to steal a game and gain an early advantage in their first playoff series in the last 14 years.

Minnesota was able to hang tough for most of the game, especially after the Wolves’ big men figured out how to contain Clint Capela. He put up 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone, giving Karl-Anthony Towns all kinds of fits. Capela, however, only finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds, though several of those points were second chance points gained on five offensive rebounds.

Towns’ incapability to find a rhythm was one of the deciding factors of Game 1. He was dominated early in the paint, mostly by Capela, and played timidly for most of the remainder of the game. It also didn’t help that his teammates ignored him when a smaller player was switched onto him — something that will need to be adjusted in Game 2.

Another key takeaway from Game 2 was James Harden performing like a true MVP. He netted 44 points, 13 in the final quarter, and was simply immune to the shooting struggles the rest of the Rockets experienced. He made 15 of 26 attempts overall, including 7 of 12 from beyond the three-point arc. Rockets players not named James Harden made just 3 of 25 three-point attempts in the game.

It didn’t matter if it was Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins or Taj Gibson defending Harden. It didn’t matter how well he was defended, either. His step-back three was unguardable.

Derrick Rose provided a key scoring spark in the second quarter while Jeff Teague sat due to three first-quarter fouls. Rose scored nine of his 16 points in the quarter and kept the Wolves afloat before halftime.

Wiggins had a decent showing in his first career playoff game, pacing the Wolves with 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting. Teague and Jamal Crawford added 15 while Butler scored 13 for Minnesota.

Defensively, Minnesota did contest Houston’s three-point shots fairly well and one would like to think that was part of the reasons for the Rockets’ shooting problems. Capela’s ineffectiveness in the second half shows Towns and Gibson eventually picked things up on the glass. Minnesota finished the game with a 47-37 rebounding advantage.

This game epitomizes the one weakness of Mike D’Antoni’s hyper-modern offense. If the Rockets get cold from beyond the arc when nearly half the team’s attempts are threes, they are very vulnerable. Tonight was that night for Houston, and Minnesota didn’t capitalize. The law of averages tells us that the Rockets probably won’t shoot this poorly the rest of the series.

However, the law of averages will also tell us that Towns will perform a little better than he did tonight, specifically in the first half.

Few expected the Wolves to keep this game close, and yet they came one possession away from overtime. Moral victories do not exist in the NBA playoffs, but this performance from the Wolves does send the message to Houston that they won’t go down easily. We could be in for a fun series, even if it doesn’t last six or seven games.