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1-on-1: Missing A Golden Opportunity

John and Eric discuss the happenings in game one.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets - Game One Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Wolves played their first playoff game since 2004 on Sunday night in Houston. The opening matchup in the best of seven series ended up being much closer than the betting line (Rockets -11) suggested, and the Wolves had every opportunity to seize control and steal an unlikely win in Game 1. James Harden had other plans.

Time to talk about this one a little more in-depth. How about some 1-on-1 with Eric in Madison!

JM: Houston was bricking everything (10-37 from deep, 16-23 from the charity stripe) and Harden and Capela were the only guys that showed up. Ryan Anderson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute both sat out due to injuries. (Ryno will be back to rain fire on the Wolves from deep soon enough, while our old friend LRMAM is set to miss the series after dislocating his shoulder.)

It feels like they wasted a prime opportunity to split in Houston before this series comes back to Target Center. I came away from the game pretty heated about usage rates. Towns and Butler are the two best offensive talents on this team and need to be way more involved moving forward.

I’ll give Houston credit for their defensive approach (switching everything and fronting KAT in the post) but the Wolves never hammered the mismatches. If Houston is going to switch their guards on to the bigs when they dive into the paint, the Wolves need to make them pay by crushing them on the inside. If Houston brings the double, kick it out to the open man. I hated the shot distribution last night.

Game 1 Usage Rates:

Rose 30.8%
Dieng 28.6%
Teague 26.4%
Wiggins 25.7%
Crawford 22.2%
Butler 15.6%
Towns 14.2%

This was also by far the closest game between these squads after the Wolves got smoked and swept 4-0 in the regular season, but they missed a golden opportunity here. What do you think? Cup half empty or half full?

EiM: Cup half full for me, mostly because I expected them to get blown out in this series, so a close, exciting game that went down to the wire is about as much as I can ask. Especially after that start, seeing them fight back, not fold, and make a game of it was entertaining and exciting, which is all I want from this series.

I agree on the usage rates...that list should be exactly reversed, and this has been a problem all season. KAT was fourth on the team in usage rate during the regular season, which is crazy given what a great offensive player he is, and last night was dire.

In particular, their hesitation to run pick-and-roll with Towns is one of my major frustrations with last night. Especially when getting him the ball in the post isn’t working, get it to him in other ways. You have to take advantage of his driving and shooting abilities. They failed to do that.

That said, while I am more than willing to place blame for that on Thibs and his teammates, I also think Towns did not do enough to properly take advantage of his opportunities. He did a poor job establishing position, and even when he caught the ball against smaller guys, he seemed unsure of how to score, which is bizarre for him.

The second-to-last guy on your usage list is also interesting. Jimmy Buckets only took 11 shots (passed up layups once or twice to kick out, as he is occasionally prone to do.) He played 36 minutes and was a +5, but he needs to be more of an offensive force doesn’t he? Only three free throw attempts won’t suffice. He’s obviously not right, right?

JM: I’m pretty worried about Butler’s health. He’s coming off meniscus surgery on his right knee back in late February and while I admire his drive to come back, and lead the team as the Alpha Wolf, he doesn’t seem to have the same burst as usual. He looked a bit tentative with the ball in his hands last night, like he almost didn’t feel totally comfortable attacking the basket. Butler is also dealing with some sort of right wrist injury. He had it taped up and was favoring it throughout the game.

I’m concerned when Thibodeau says Butler is “nicked up” and both play coy when asked about his health. With that being said, if there’s a list of guys who are strong enough to play through nagging injuries, both physically and mentally, Butler is at the top of the list. I’m sure he’s going to give these playoffs everything he has in the tank.

One of the low-key important aspects of this series is whether or not KAT can keep up with Clint Capela in transition, as well as defend him and Harden in the pick-and-roll. After seeing game one, do you think Towns can adjust and what’s your reaction to Thibs’ postgame remarks on this matter?

EiM: Yeah, I mean all of those things are good things to do. Of course the defensive end is a problem—Capela beat him down floor a couple of times, but in the first half, the lobs from Harden when KAT drifted over to help were a huge problem. This has been a huge issue all season, it isn’t changing now. They don’t seem to be able to figure out how to defend these plays. Steven Adams scores at will against the Wolves because of this. Capela does too. Part of it is Towns, who often doesn’t seem to know whether to stay or help, and thus often half-heartedly does neither. But part of this is scheme and/or execution. The Rockets are obviously hugely dangerous if you bring a wing defender in to help, and part of the plan may have been to allow this to happen and stay home, but it’s not a great look.

Overall, I thought the defense was about as good as we could hope for last night. Sure, the Rockets in the normal course of things make a few more, but the Wolves did a good job closing out, took away the easy Capela lobs in the second half, and it took several crazy shots from the league MVP to beat them.

Offensively, we’ve discussed it, but the Wolves just don’t have guards who are going to look to get KAT the ball as a primary objective. Derrick Rose and Jamal Crawford combined for 25 shot attempts while KAT had nine, which is nuts. Those guys look for their own at every opportunity, which is not optimal, even when they are going in.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets - Game One Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Speaking of Rose and Crawford (And I could go on at length,) they seem to be the primary bench guys now, with Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica, and Gorgui Dieng being used just to get guys quick rests. Perhaps that changes in game two, but I’m not expecting it to. I think this is harsh, especially for Jones, but what’s your take on where Thibs is going with the reserves?

JM: I pretty much hate it. Rose gave them a great spark after Teague picked up his third foul in the first half, but the problem is that he doesn’t know when to stop shooting. He plays like he always has; he goes full speed ahead at the rim looking to get his. I thought Thibs rode him too long after his initial surge in the second. That was a tremendous stint, but also baited Thibs into playing Rose heavier minutes and those came with the negatives that made it more of a neutral performance altogether. The defense from Rose has been promising as a whole—Harden makes most guards look terrible—but there’s literally no way anyone can make me believe this team is better off with Rose at point guard over Tyus Jones.

Jones is far superior defensively and the way he controls the tempo and facilitates the offense, allowing the BEST SCORERS on the team to do what they do best, is much more helpful. Another way to put it: Jones is rarely a detrimental force in the way Crawford and Rose can be, and often are.

I really do think it’s a complete joke to see Nemanja Bejlica only get six minutes in a series that caters to his skillset. That makes no sense to me. Belly can play the pace and space game and they desperately need his shooting to help space the floor so Houston can’t double and triple team Towns with no repercussions. Houston plays like they aren’t afraid of the Wolves beating them from the perimeter. Belly would desperately help in that regard.

The way Thibs has used Belly, Tyus, and Dieng off the bench has been a season long issue, in my opinion. These guys are good enough to warrant real meaningful minutes every game and if Thibs sticks with the type of rotation we saw in game one throughout the series, barely relying on them at all, I’m sure they will get blown out once Houston starts hitting threes and getting better production from CP3 and the supporting cast.

By the way...all of those things Thibs talked about Towns doing above would be far easier to achieve if the guy wasn’t playing 40+ minutes every night. Players get tired. Towns is chasing Capela up and down the court and the Rockets are running pick-and-rolls down his throat. Gorgui is sitting over there on the bench for a reason. Use him! A fresher Towns is always a better Towns.

What did you think about Andrew Wiggins’ first playoff game? And as an aside: Do you think we talk too much about fouls and travels, or is that just part of normal NBA discourse? Any other big takeaways from game one?

EiM: Before I get to Wiggins, a couple things: Tyus Jones has more than proved himself as a capable backup this season, and should have seen his minutes increase as the year went on, and instead we have this. Gorgui Dieng wants out, and to be fair, he hasn’t played great with his opportunities, but still. I would be very surprised if Bjelica’s back next year, and while his game waxes and wanes more than I would like, he’s shown how he can be valuable. Derrick Rose is not good. My Rose bias is well documented, so take this as you will, but the defenses of him I’ve been seeing are absurd. He was awful for the Wolves over nine games in the regular season, which should have been expected, since he is no longer a good NBA basketball player. Last night, a few went in. He shot it too much, does not find the actual good offensive players on the team, and managed a -6 in a game the Wolves lost by three. Meanwhile, Jones was +2 in seven(!) minutes, highlighted by an absolutely brilliant defensive play stopping a 2-on-1 fast break.

Dieng played terrifically well in his short stint I thought, bringing some spark that Towns seemed to be lacking last night. Obviously, you are going to play Towns. But if you are going to keep Rose in there on the excuse that he’s playing well that night, what about Gorgui? As for Bjelica, he missed a couple at the rim which was frustrating, but he’s never going to show his value in six minutes spread over two stints. Add that to the fact that they so rarely look for him, even when he’s open beyond the arc, and this is what you get.

Wiggins was very good I thought. Excellent playoff debut. Got going early, missed some shots as the game went on, but I thought the effort was pretty consistent, and he did his job defensively. Along with Jeff Teague, I was happiest with Wiggins’ individual performance. I do think he could have taken advantage of some of the small guys guarding him a little better, but overall very good. I wonder if this isn’t a time where his demeanor helped him: Towns was desperate to play well in his playoff debut, and it might have led to some tightness. Wiggins was just like, yeah, it’s a ball game. I dunno. Speculation.

On the whole, I enjoyed last night’s game, and it’s all I can ask for of this series. The Wolves are not going to beat the Rockets over seven games, but if they stand up and are counted, make the Rockets work for it, I think that’s a good sign of progress.

We’ll leave it there for game one, but hopefully we’ll be back with some more back and forth after Wednesday’s game two.