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Game Preview #34: Wolves at Rockets

Anthony Edwards and the Timberwolves are looking to snap their longest losing streak (2) of the season on the road against Alperen Şengün and the Rockets in Houston.

Photos by David Berding and Carmen Mandato / Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves are coming off a disheartening 117-106 loss against the New Orleans Pelicans. The team finally lost back-to-back games and is in the middle of a rut on both ends of the ball. Surprisingly, the Houston Rockets have been playing very inspiring basketball this season and own a 14-5 record at Toyota Center. Minnesota will have its work cut out for them as they look to get back to the play that has them slotted as the best team in the Western Conference.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (24-9) vs. Houston Rockets (17-15)
  • When: Friday, January 5 at 7:00 PM CT
  • Where: Toyota Center — Houston, TX
  • TV: Bally Sports North
  • Radio: Wolves App Radio, iHeart Radio
  • Line: Wolves -4 | Total: 216.5 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
  • Jerseys: Wolves (City Edition), Rockets (City Edition)

Injury Report

Updated as of Friday at 6:20 PM CT

Minnesota

QUESTIONABLE:

  • Luka Garza (low back spasms)

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right Achilles tendon rupture rehab)

Houston

OUT:

  • Dillon Brooks (right oblique strain)
  • Tari Eason (left leg soreness)
  • Victor Oladipo (left patellar tendon)
  • Nate Hinton (G League assignment)
  • Jermaine Samuels Jr. (G League assignment)
  • Nate Williams (G League assignment)

What to Watch For

Phoenix Suns v Houston Rockets Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

Containing Alperen Şengün

The head of the horse in Houston this season has been the offensive emergence of Alperen Şengün, who is averaging a team-high 21.5 points per game while corralling nine rebounds and dishing out 5.3 assists — playing in all 32 games to start the year. Consistency has been the key to his game this season, as he has put up 15+ points in 28 games, shooting north of 50% in 23 of those contests.

Şengün is a matchup nightmare for most teams, and that’s especially true for the Timberwolves. His game is similar to Nikola Jokić's, as both live in the mid-range. 42% of Şengün’s shots per game come from within the 3-point line and beyond the restricted area, 35% of his shots are between the restricted area and free throw line, while just 12% of his attempts are from 3-point range. Another aspect that makes Alperen’s game similar to the Joker’s is how the offense flows around, under, and above them at the nail.

Instead of running the typical pick-and-rolls or pick-and-pops with his primary ball handler and newly acquired guard Fred VanVleet, Şengün will regularly stop his roll to the basket at the free throw line and await an entity pass. From there, the Turkish big will face the basket and decide whether to pull a contested midrange look or pump fake and attack the basket.

The Rockets are littered with athletic wings, such as Jabari Smith Jr., Jalen Green, Tari Eason — who missed Houston’s last game with a leg injury — Cam Whitmore, and Amen Thompson, all of whom are more than capable off-ball scorers. While Şengün isn’t exactly known for his passing and prioritizes his own offense, the Wolves could get lit up via cutters and wide-open corner shooters if they don’t bring a better defensive attack than what we’ve seen over the team’s last couple of games.

Who takes the Şengün matchup will also be something to monitor. Last season, Rudy Gobert was the primary defender against him twice, while Karl-Anthony Towns was once. In all three games, Şengün had an advantage of some sort; either he dominated from the mid/short range or forced his defender into early foul trouble.

Rockets Head Coach Ime Udoka has run with the starting lineup of VanVleet, Green, Jae’Sean Tate, Smith Jr., and Şengün in three out of the team's last four games. Heading into Friday’s game, I could see Finch and his staff going with either Towns or Gobert to start. However, I’d like to see what sort of resistance KAT can offer against Şengün. The Stifle Tower is off to a DPOY-level start to the season, but he has had issues containing power forwards/centers in the mid-range. If he can stay out of foul trouble, Towns could give the Wolves solid defense on Alpy while Gobert lurks from the baseline, defending Smith Jr. and helping on low-post attempts.

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Somebody, Anybody, Needs To Step Up

It’s been no secret the Timberwolves have not been a good offensive team this season. Primarily, it’s on the bench where issues have arisen.

Minnesota’s bench owns a 53.3 offensive rating, good for 23rd in the league, and a +0.6 net rating, 12th-best league-wide. Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch has been consistently going to Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Naz Reid, and Kyle Anderson as his first line of defense off the bench. Reid, averaging the fourth most points per game at 12.5, is capable of breaking down his defender with pretty off-the-dribble moves while connecting on the reliable three-point spot up. Alexander-Walker is a reliable off-ball spacer from the corners, as 66% of his shot attempts per game come from three-point range, while 32% of those attempts are hoisted up from the corners alone. However, outside of that, Finch and his staff have not been able to rely on anyone else outside of the starters to shoulder any offensive load.

On Wednesday at Target Center, Minnesota succumbed to one of its worst losses of the season behind some pretty poor offense. The Wolves are a team that relies heavily on their defense, and when production is failing on that side of the court as it was against New Orleans, the offense suffers hand in hand. Minnesota shot 37-of-82 (45.1%) from the floor and 10-of-31 (32.3%) from deep, while the Pelicans went 45-of-81 (55.6%) from the floor and 12-of-26 (46.2%) from three-point range.

You just aren’t going to win with those contrasting splits.

Jordan McLaughlin, Reid, Anderson, and Alexander-Walker went a combined 5-of-19 from the floor and 2-of-11 from deep Wednesday night. Finch desperately needed somebody, anybody, to step up when the starters were resting but could never count on anyone to score consistently. Anthony Edwards finished with 35 points, but he shot 11-of-22 from the floor and was obviously bothered by Herb Jones during critical stretches.

The Rockets are ranked as the fourth-best defensive team in the league based on defensive rating (110.9), right behind the Boston Celtics (110.9), Philadelphia 76ers (110.0), and Minnesota (108.7). If the Wolves hope to get back on track offensively, it must be a team effort in H-Town. Ant loves playing against the Rockets, as he averaged 29 points on 48% from the floor and 50% from three over four games against them last season, so expecting him to carry most of the offensive load seems appropriate, especially knowing his attitude. Edwards hates losing and is prone to take over during key stretches of games; I’m sure Wednesday’s loss isn’t sitting well with him.

Still, there is only so much AE5 can do. Getting at least 25 points from Minnesota’s bench seems necessary in handing a rock-solid Rockets team on their home court.

In-Season Tournament - Sacramento Kings v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Getting Out of the Funk

“When you get a little success, sometimes you forget what got you there,” said Gobert after Wednesday’s loss. “You get complimented from everybody, but it can soften you up a little bit. When you get smacked, when you lose, it does the opposite.”

The Timberwolves dropped consecutive games for the first time this season on Wednesday. They were the last team in the league to do so. Over the last handful of games, Minnesota has been going through a funk on both sides of the ball. Defensive schemes, rotations, and execution have been poor, and, as a result, the offense has struggled because the Wolves aren’t getting out in transition and having momentum-swinging opportunities.

A mid-season slippage is inevitable in a long, 82-game season. Every team goes through a rough patch, even championship contenders. However, the difference between championship-contending teams battling through a downswing and just playoff contenders is how long the stretch lasts. The Timberwolves need to return quickly to what has made them the best team in the Western Conference.

One way that Finch and his staff can help put some confidence and offensive rhythm back into their roster is by getting the ball back in the hands of Mike Conley and operating plays from the corners through him. Structure, and lack thereof, has been a conversation point since the summer; Finchy likes to run a free-flowing offense, which is great when players like Ant or KAT are deep in their bags. However, it hurts when the team has issues consistently putting the ball in the hoop and possibly undergoing a dip in confidence.

“I think we need to let Mike [Conley] initiate everything, Edwards said after Wednesday’s loss. Including myself, I’ve got to stop coming for the ball because that is playing into the defense’s hands, going into ball screens, and getting trapped. We need to like Mike initiate the offense more and play out of the corners.”