MINNEAPOLIS — Down two games to none in an unfavorable first round series against the lethal, unrelenting high-speed Houston Rockets, the Timberwolves returned home to a city that hasn’t hosted a playoff game since 2003-04. The building was booming from the jump with chants of “Let’s go Wolves!” and “DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE” setting an energetic tone.
Another not so predictable chant took place later in the night. Avoiding the sweep clearly wasn’t enough for the playoff starved fans that packed the Target Center on Saturday. “Wolves in six,” filled the building once the game was no longer in question. From anxious and concerned to overconfident and unreasonably bold. In the end, it was only one aspect of a night that won’t soon be forgotten. The Wolves finally won their first playoff game in 14 years, 121-105. Doing it in front of the hometown fans that have waited an eternity for this moment made it all the more sweet.
The Playoff Teague many have talked about in the past showed up. Eventually it simply looked like Teague had enough of Chris Paul. The time arrived for him to leave his mark and the second half was full of clutch shots from one of the biggest free agent additions in franchise history; 17 of his 23 points came after the break. With every bucket, emotion poured out of Teague for the world to consume. He pounded his chest in enthusiasm and waved his hands in the air wanting to hear the fans even louder than they already were.
Teague was asked about how emotional he appeared to be in the second half. “Nah, I do that every game,” he said. A subtle laugh followed. And while Teague certainly brought the best version of himself to game three, it was the Wolves’ two stars, along with one they have tons of hope for in the future, that helped them avoid another loss to Houston.
Jimmy Butler looked like his old, aggressive, All-Star self from the jump. He got things started quickly in the first, attacking and finishing early and often. In the win, Butler did what so many have been waiting for him to do this series, even with a nicked up body trying to hold him back; Jimmy led the Wolves. Not even a tweaked ankle late in the second was going to keep him down. An injured wrist? A surgical repaired knee. You get the feeling Butler will do anything for his team, and that’s the type of leader the Wolves have missed since Garnett.
“Yeah, he’s out there giving it all,” said Teague. “He’s a hell of a player. He’s the heart and soul. When he’s out there competing, it rubs off on everyone. The atmosphere was great. That’s the effort we need.”
Butler led the Wolves with 28 points on 10-19 shooting. It was the sixth 28+ point playoff performance of his career. He added seven rebounds and five assists.
“I can tell you for the last couple of days that I got tired of my teammates telling me to be more aggressive,” Butler said earnestly.
“I think that I took it upon myself to do just that. They are used to me being aggressive the past seven months, so don’t switch it up now. I did that. I did my job. We did our job, and we won this game.”
The Wolves once again stopped Houston from hitting full stride, containing one of the NBA’s best offenses with improved pick-and-roll coverages and strong shot contesting. This time, though, the Wolves offense finally showed up the party.
“We guarded though, we guarded,” said Butler. “It always helps when you make shots. They missed a lot of shots that they normally make. All in all, we were just out there playing basketball. And I think that’s just how we want to do it here on out.”
Karl-Anthony Towns recorded his first career playoff double-double with 18 points and a postseason-high 16 rebounds, including 13 defensive boards. After struggling mightily in his first two playoff games, as Houston made it their highest priority to take him out of the game with quick double-teams—daring others to beat them before the BIG KAT could—Towns started game three with the same passive play that hurt the Wolves in the first two games of the series.
After being patient to start, Towns finally turned up the heat. A monstrous slam on Clint Capela led to an emotional display that signaled his arrival in the series. A ferocious flex combined with a little trash talk afterwards (reminiscent of his mentor, KG) seemed to be the turning point in the game for the Wolves’ incredibly talented center.
“I think it is a sense of patience,” Towns said, after being asked about letting the game come to him with the way Houston is sending extra defenders at him from all different angles.
“In the first quarter I don’t think I shot a shot. Just letting the game come to me and not trying to rush and not trying to find shots and just let the shots find me. My teammates were amazing. Jeff was out there balling. Derrick, Jimmy, Taj … everyone was doing their job … Andrew.”
Andrew Wiggins dropped 20 points on 7-11 shooting and is now averaging 17.0 points per game in his first three career playoff games. He grabbed five rebounds and has now tallied 5+ rebounds in each game this series, which is an area that always seems to help his team succeed. Wiggins’ drive-and-kick game was putting the Rockets on tilt and getting teammates clean looks from deep. He played with poise and defended with pride, doing his best to keep various Houston wings from catching fire.
“I like games like this,” said Wiggins. “It’s crucial, there’s a lot on the line. I feel like I play good under pressure.” Thibodeau was asked whether or not we’re seeing another side of Wiggins come out in his first playoff series.
“Andrew’s played very well. He’s done very well down the stretch and he’s played well in the playoffs. He played an all-around game. The rebounding was good and the playmaking—he had five assists. He’s trusting the pass, he’s making the right read on the double team. I thought that it became contagious with everyone. Jimmy was making plays. I thought Karl got going in the second half you know and that was important for us. His activity was terrific. I thought Derrick gave us a big boost off the bench, but we needed everyone.”
James Harden recorded 29 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds but took 21 shots to get there and added four turnovers that helped the Wolves get out and push the pace in transition. The eventual MVP struggled to get in a rhythm and wasn’t able to take over like he did in game one.
“It’s a team effort,” said Wiggins. When trying to contain a sensational offensive talent like Harden, it’s about slowing him down, rather than stopping him altogether. That’s what the Wolves were able to do. “He has a lot of tools, a lot of stuff he can do. As a team we’re trying to slow him down,” said Wiggins.
KAT gave James Harden's airballed shots the Carmen Sandiego treatment twice, here's both in one video pic.twitter.com/rPy2UHf7Er— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) April 22, 2018
Chris Paul finished the night with 17 points on 7-of- 11 shooting. He also added six assists. Ryan Anderson made his return the Rockets lineup after missing the first two games of the series with a bum left ankle. He nailed four treys, which is ironic since Houston was 18-1 when he made 3+ during the season. The Wolves, however, matched the Rockets from deep and that was always the area they would need to close the gap to steal a win. Tonight from beyond the arc:
That’s obviously huge, and not something the Wolves can count on, but when it comes, it’s a joy to watch. A big part of it was the Wolves ball movement, not usually a strength of the team. They had 29 assists on 45 made field goals, and a lot of it was finding open guys on the perimeter against a double-teaming and collapsing defense. It probably makes sense to leave most of the Wolves alone beyond the arc, but tonight they made the Rockets pay.
Another positive factor in the Wolves first playoff win was the performance of Derrick Rose, who, especially given the moment, played his best game as a Wolf. He finished with 17 points on 8-16 shooting coming off the bench. 10 of those points came in the second quarter alone. That was a pivotal moment when Tom Thibodeau went back to the same lineup that saw his team relinquish the lead and lose complete control of things in game two (Teague-Crawford-Rose-Butler-Towns). I wanted to issue a warning to everyone on Twitter that things were set to fall a part but decided to wait a few minutes before going there. It appeared Thibs, again, was playing with fire and would inevitably get burnt. But Rose’s play helped make sure that didn’t happen.
“The fans were great, the crowd was great,” said Taj Gibson. “Like I said from Day 1, we’re doing this for Minnesota. The fans pushed us over the limit, they were in it the whole game. We felt the energy. One thing about this crowd, they let you know when you’re playing bad and let you know when you’re playing great. It was a great atmosphere today.”
On Saturday at Target Center, in front of a sellout crowd, the Wolves gave everyone in attendance reason to go nuts. The unreasonably cocky chants of “Wolves in six” were a product of the fantastic display of basketball from a franchise that has taken forever to finally arrive after all of these years being lost in the woods.
Playoff basketball is back in Minneapolis, and on Monday night it will return again. There will be more loud chants and an opportunity to send Houston another message; the Wolves aren’t going to crumble that easily.