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Wolves 122, Rockets 95: Strong Defense Snaps First Losing Streak of the Season

Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jaden McDaniels combined for 62 points alone, but it was defensive intensity that led the Timberwolves to a much-needed blowout win in Houston.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves enter tonight’s game in the middle of their lowest point in the 2023-24 season, having just dropped consecutive games for the first time (crazy that two straight losses are considered a swoon for the Wolves). Still, they own the best record in the Western Conference and are looking to regain their edge against a very strong Houston Rockets team in Toyota Center, who are anchored by rising star big man Alperen Şengün.

The Rockets wasted no time getting in rhythm on offense. They opened the game shooting 4-of-4 from the floor and 2-of-2 from deep. Şengün, who had five of the team’s first nine points, asserted his will against Rudy Gobert early with a couple of nifty moves in the low post, one being a quick floater over the top and the other a pump fake, which led to an early one-on-one opportunity.

The 6-foot-10 Turkish big man is an incredibly tough cover for any opposing team's big man, especially Gobert, who has had issues containing forwards/centers who live in the mid-range. Early on, Rudy was far too deep into the paint, and, as a result, Şengün was given just enough space to pull quick floaters and put the defense on its heels.

On the other end, the Timberwolves offense was much more dialed in than they were early against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. The team snapped the ball around the perimeter, sharing the wealth, as all five starters were in the scoring column through the first seven minutes while the team was 7-of-12 from the floor.

As expected, Anthony Edwards was incredibly determined off the jump. He shot just 3-of-7 from the floor in the opening frame but got to the line five times — he laced in all of those attempts. According to Bally Sports North’s pregame show, heading into this game, Edwards has attempted ten or more free throws in the last five contests, the longest current streak in all of the NBA.

It has been incredibly refreshing to 1, see Ant being more aggressive and hunting for foul calls and 2, the referees actually respecting the “Hey!” by giving him a more favorable whistle.

That palpable energy was felt throughout the team, as they were able to sit down and lock in on defense after the Rockets punched them in the mouth on offense early. The Timberwolves forced six Rockets turnovers through the first 12 minutes while converting seven points off of them.

Minnesota has been looking to regain its defensive edge, and this play is exactly why they are sitting at the top of the Western Conference standings.

After trailing by eight points, Houston opened the second quarter going 2-of-9 from the floor and 0-of-6 from within the 3-point line — a very conceded effort from a Wolves team that appears contended with snapping this losing streak at two. Minnesota was still having issues putting the ball in the rim, but the defensive pressure kept the hometown crowd quiet, which is incredibly refreshing to see instilled back in the team.

On top of the team-wide lockdown defense, Naz Reid gave the Wolves 12 crucial minutes in the first half, as he registered a quick nine points and pulled in six rebounds on 4-of-6 from the floor and 1-of-2 from deep. Head Coach Chris Finch finally received some productive play from his bench on both ends, which was all led by Reid’s efforts.

Kyle Anderson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jordan McLaughlin, and Reid were a combined 5-of-11 from the floor and 1-of-4 from deep, putting up a total of 12 points. Those numbers aren’t anything that special. However, when most of those guys were on the floor together, they kept the Rockets largely out of rhythm and kept Minnesota’s lead sizable. That’s all you can ask from the bench mob, similar to set-up relief pitchers in baseball — they may not win you games, but they sure can lose them.

At the halftime intermission, the Wolves were up by ten points, which didn’t feel indicative of how the first half played out. They were active in passing lanes, forced ten turnovers while only coughing the ball up seven times themselves, and held Şengün — who went 1-of-6 from the floor in the second quarter — largely in check. However, Minnesota had issues putting the ball in the bucket yet again by shooting 21-of-45 from the floor and 5-of-15 from deep. Still, their lead was commanding, and they didn’t allow the Rockets to gain any added momentum or juice late in the frame.

Coming out of the break, Houston connected on three of their first four attempted triples, two of which came by way of Jalen Green, who the Wolves can’t afford to find any time of rhythm. The last time Minnesota was in Houston, Green finished with a career-high 42 points on 60% from the floor and 50% from deep. He had 18 points for the Rockets with 6:45 left in the third, six of which came after halftime.

Mike Conley was on Green up until that point in the frame. However, after the sub-seven-minute timeout, Finch and his staff elected to switch Edwards onto him and Conley onto Jae’Sean Tate, which seemed like the right move.

Minnesota was able to keep the 6-foot-4 guard in check the rest of the quarter, en route to an overall productive start to the second half. Ironically, most of the team’s success came once Rockets Head Coach Ime Udoka rotated in his bench, where some apparent talent discrepancy occurred. The Wolves shot 10-of-19 from the floor in the third, while the Rockets went 9-of-21.

KAT has been incredibly consistent and reliable throughout tonight’s game, and his imprint was especially felt in the third. The 6-foot-10 forward netted seven points in 10 third-quarter minutes. Above that, he provided his team with many intangibles and small yet very impactful things, such as this offensive rebound and inside pass to SlowMo, who posterized Jabari Smith Jr., much to the delight of the Wolves’ bench.

It seemed one last push was going to all but put this one to bed, and that is precisely what the Wolves did to open the fourth. Through the first four minutes, Minnesota shot 5-of-7 from the floor, forced two more Houston turnovers, and ballooned their lead up to 22 via an 8-0 run, which was capped off by a J-Mac triple and a wide-open Stifle Tower throwdown after a bobble.

Finchy was forced to sub a few members of his starting lineup back in one more time after Reggie Bullock Jr. canned a corner triple, trimming the lead to 19 points with 6:30 left until the final buzzer. However, once Edwards and Conley were rotated back in, the Wolves went on a 10-2 run over the succeeding three minutes. Both teams waived the white flag with 3:28 remaining. Boban Marjanović’s appearance off the bench warranted one final cheer from the Toyota Center crowd, and Leonard Miller was doing pushups on the sideline as Minnesota cruised to a much-needed blowout, confidence regaining victory.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The Jaden McDaniels Get Back Game

Heading into tonight’s contest, Jaden McDaniels averaged nine points and 0.6 rebounds on 40% from the floor and 26.7% from beyond the arc over the last five games. The 6-foot-10 wing has been sputtering since returning from injury, so overall low numbers aren’t exactly surprising. However, Minnesota hasn’t been able to count on McDaniels for much of anything on offense. During stretches, it was easy to forget he was even on the floor.

All of that changed tonight, as Slim finished with 16 points (his fourth most in a game this season) and three rebounds on 7-of-10 from the floor and 2-of-3 from deep. He was able to provide his team with incredibly timely scoring and did so in a multitude of different ways.

“I’ve always said that Jaden is a barometer for our offense,” said Chris Finch postgame. “If we are moving the ball and doing the right things offensively, guys like him can really contribute at a high level, and we saw that tonight.”

President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and his staff didn’t expect nor need McDaniels to be a 20+ point per game scorer when they decided to extend a five-year, $136 million extension to him in late October. But when Jaden is being this effective in on and off-ball situations, the Wolves become an even tougher team to beat.

It was great to see him regain some confidence tonight.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

KAT Remains Rock Solid

Similar to McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns has had issues finding a rhythm offensively since returning from injury. It’s been apparent that KAT’s left knee, the reason he missed December 23rd’s game in Sacramento, has been bothering him and isn’t at 100%. Partly as a result, he hasn’t been able to settle in offensively and has had some poor scoring games over the team’s last handful of games. Still, the Kentucky Wildcat keeps making all the winning plays night in and night out. That didn’t change tonight in downtown Houston.

Towns finished with 22 points on 8-of-17 from the floor and 1-of-4 from deep, and did have four turnovers, but made up for it with six dimes. Those numbers aren’t the best, but he came up big time during key moments of the game and was a driving factor in keeping any potential Rockets second-half push at bay.

All season, KAT has tried his best to figure out what the team needs on a game-to-game basis and dominate in those areas. Sometimes, it means shouldering the majority of the scoring load; other times, it means he needs to be a secondary scoring punch while always keeping his finger on the pulse. Tonight, the latter was required of him, and he did so admirably.

“We wanted to get back on track and re-establish our identity,” KAT told Bally Sports North’s Lea B. Olsen postgame. “I think we did a really good job of that tonight against a really good team in Houston. Great start to the road trip; now it’s time to build ... Tonight, the story was our defense. Our defense showed up again; our identity was here again — it led to a really good win. We looked like the Timberwolves team that people know.”

Key Stats

  • Alperen Şengün: 19 points (his lowest point total since Dec. 20th) on 8-of-17 FG
  • Şengün in first quarter: 11 points on 5-of-7 FG
  • Şengün the rest of the way: 8 points on 3-of-10 FG
  • 15 HOU turnovers, sparking 18 MIN fastbreak points
  • 52-38 rebound advantage for MIN
  • 60-46 points in the paint advantage for MIN
  • 31-18 assist advantage for MIN
  • Every rotational player for MIN had a positive +/-

Up Next

The Timberwolves continue their four-game road trip as they hop on a quick flight to the Big D to match up with the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday evening. Luka Dončić missed Friday’s game with an ankle sprain, so that will be something to monitor leading up to the game.

Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 PM CT, with streaming available on Bally Sports North, Wolves App Radio, and iHeart Radio.