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10 Quick Thoughts on Wolves/Rockets

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Some commentary on Game 1 and the series moving forward

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

I have been thinking a lot about what happened in Game 1 on Sunday in Houston. Here are 10 quick thoughts about the game and the series moving forward:

1. The Wolves did an excellent job on the glass, an area they can help close the gap on an elite pace and space team like the Rockets. They won the battle of the boards, 47-37, in the first game of the series and need to keep crushing Houston in the rebounding column. Thibs has talked about the importance of rebounding all season long so now they need to get the job done on the boards. Getting second chance opportunities will be key—they secured 11 offensive rebounds in Game 1.

Everyone also has to chip-in. That happened once already. Karl-Anthony Towns had 12 boards, Jeff Teague grabbed 9, which is excellent for a point guard, Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson both had six, while Jimmy Butler had five. Keeping Clint Capela off the offensive glass is also crucial. He had 5 offensive boards and averaged 3.3 per game this season (tied for 5th in the NBA).

Game 1...

Wolves
ORB%: 27.5% DRB%: 81.8%
Rockets
ORB%: 18.2% DRB%: 72.5%

2. Keep getting to the free throw line. Minnesota finished 23-28 at the line compared to the Rockets’ 16-23. Those seven extra points are big because the Wolves need all the extra points they can get to close the 3-point scoring disparity. This has been a team strength for years. They ranked 5th in free throw rate this season at .280 (the ratio of foul shots to field goal attempts, expressed as FTA/FGA.)

Game 1...

Wolves
FTA/FGA: .350
Rockets
FTA/FGA: .277

3. Limiting the Rockets’ fastbreak points is key. Transition defense has been a major issue throughout this season. At times the Wolves do a pretty good job but as a whole they often let opponents take advantage of them on the break. Capela is the one guy to watch out for. Towns often struggles getting back in transition and, as we’ve seen before, that’s going to hurt the Wolves.

Game 1...

Wolves
Fast break points: 10
Rockets
Fast break points: 13

4. Speaking of Clint Capela, the man has almost perfected what I’m going to call the rolling box out screen. Case in point:

Capela is basically boxing Butler out from the perimeter down into the lane. This is not what setting a screen looks like, but unless the referees are really out to stop this stuff (doubtful) I don’t know how the Wolves are supposed to deal with it. But keep an eye on Capela. They need to find a way to combat his moving screens.

5. It’s a good thing Ryan Anderson (sprained ankle) didn’t play and he might not get much run again tonight either. Ryno is set to go through shootaround and will suit up, but there’s been no official word on how many minutes, if any, he will play in Game 2. I worry about how badly he is going to make it rain from deep once he returns. My mind goes back to all of the prior games he’s burned the nets down with deep treys. I made the video below earlier this season. Houston gives me nightmares. Hello darkness, my old friend.

6. RUN A LOT MORE PICK-AND-ROLL AND PICK-AND-POP WITH KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS. The Wolves have multiple guys talented enough to be devastating initiators—Butler, Teague, and Wiggins—so how about spreading the floor in halfcourt sets and doing what Houston did to them so many times with Harden and Capela. Yes, you heard it here first! They should be running high pick-and-rolls as often as Houston guns from deep. If they are going to switch everything than embrace it. Make them switch multiple times every single possession until the defense breaks down. It will happen eventually.

The pick-and-roll is such popular and deadly action throughout the league and the Wolves, plain and simple, don’t run enough PnR’s with Towns as the roll/pop man. If you have the right parts, this action is often unguardable. Harden and Capela, for example, are almost impossible to stop with three shooters spread around them.

7. Flip the usage rates from Game 1, as we discussed here, and also add Nemanja Bjelica to the mix. I would give Belly 20 minutes regardless of his play. They need all the floor spacing they can get with the way Houston is switching and double-teaming Towns. Instead of asking Towns to clear out to one of the corners to operate as a deadly floor spacer as the guards have bigs on the them and can take them off the dribble, ask Belly to do it instead. Butler can do it as well. But Towns is not someone I would want in the corners even considering how damn good of a shooter he is. My eye test tells me he’s even slower getting back in transition when he sets up in the corners and the Wolves also lose out on his supreme offensive rebounding ability. Why waste that? Beating up Houston on the glass, and in the paint, is one of the most obvious ways to keep up. (#FreeBelly)

8. Mike D’Antoni has some of the coolest offensive sets that generate clean three-point looks. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that having James Harden and Chris Paul helps everything run smoothly, but look at this set they ran to get Eric Gordon a wide-open look from deep:

It’s almost like the Wolves have never seen anything like this before. Derrick Rose has no idea what to do. Gorgui Dieng is deep in the paint in no man’s land basically expecting a normal pick-and-roll. Teague is helpless because...what is he supposed to do? But the Rockets deserve tons of credit. This is a sweet play the Wolves need to look out for.

9. Jimmy Butler is nicked up coming off knee surgery (and his right wrist is bothering him, too) but if the Wolves are going to steal a game or even make this an interesting series, Mr. Buckets needs to lead the charge. Teammates will follow his lead. Jimmy is the unquestionable leader and the heart and soul of this team. In Game 1, there was never really that Butler moment when he showed intense emotion or started talking mad trash or had that ultimate gamer look in his eyes, screaming “give me the damn ball.” He needs to take over like Harden did. Towns needs to be the same way. I know this is the coldest possible take, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how the two stars in Minnesota didn’t take control at all in Game 1.

10. Play some Bully-Ball. Make the game physical. Get into guys personal space. I want to see more attitude and grit in Game 2. I want to see the players get a little bit heated and channel that energy into more aggressive play. I want to see the Wolves whoop the Rockets in the paint, absolutely beating them up. Pace and space isn’t going to work for them. Slow the game down, because nobody should try to fool themselves into thinking they can match teams like the Rockets and Warriors at their own game. Use strength and size to dominate the areas that can be dominated.

BONUS: We’ve all been promised Playoff Wiggins for a long time and he played well in his first game. I want to see it again and I want to see even more this time.