By: Dan Slaubaugh
The No. 1-seeded Houston Rockets will face the No. 8-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in Round 1 of the 2018 NBA Playoffs. Let’s take a look at the matchups and central storylines that will determine who wins, and how easily.
The “it took 14 years narrative” is probably getting old by now. But man, firing up my laptop and opening this writing space to write a playoff series preview felt pretty freaking good.
Sure, the odds of beating arguably the best team in the NBA four times in seven tries aren’t great. Sure, the fact the Timberwolves are in this position after losing ten combined games to Atlanta, Brooklyn, Memphis, Chicago, Phoenix, and Orlando when winning just three of those would have vaulted them into the 3-seed makes the playoffs bittersweet.
But the fact the Wolves are in the NBA Playoffs, and the way they got here after a thrilling overtime victory in a win or go home match on the last day of the regular season against the division-rival Denver Nuggets is still surreal and incredibly exciting in itself. Oh, and seeing Target Center in playoff mode again was dope as well.
Regardless of where the Wolves ended up in the standings, the state of Minnesota and the franchise itself needed this.
We needed this.
No. 1 Houston Rockets (65-17) vs. No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)
Playoff Series Schedule
Season series: 4-0, Rockets
Last season’s playoff results: Rockets eliminated (4-2) by Spurs in conference semifinals; Wolves making first playoff appearance since 2003-04 season (I bet you didn’t know that!).
Injury report: Luc Mba a Moute (shoulder) is expected to miss the entire first round series after dislocating his shoulder Wednesday in a meaningless game against the Lakers.
Houston Rockets projected starting lineup: PG Chris Paul, SG James Harden, SF Trevor Ariza, PF PJ Tucker, C Clint Capela
Minnesota Timberwolves projected starting lineup: PG Jeff Teague, SG Andrew Wiggins, SF Jimmy Butler, PF Taj Gibson, C Karl-Anthony Towns
5 things to watch
Great offense versus bad defense
Houston will be throwing the NBA’s second-best offense at a Minnesota team that’s struggled defensively all season. Scoring 112.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, the Rockets finished the regular season with the NBA’s second-best offense.
Engineering the high-powered offense is James Harden, a transformed point guard anchoring one of the most effective and forward-thinking offenses in the 21st century. After leading the league in scoring at over 30 a game and ranking fourth in assists, Harden will likely win the MVP award.
Piloting (get it? Because they're the Rockets? Haha.) the offense alongside him is point gawd Chris Paul, who has fit seamlessly into the Rockets lethal offense. Combine the two superstars with very respectable three-point snipers in Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, Ryan Anderson, and Joe Johnson, a premier 6th man in Eric Gordon, and young-stud Clint Capela doing the dirty work down low, and you’ll see why the Rockets are projected to expose a very flawed Minnesota defense throughout the next week in a half.
Per Zach Lowe of ESPN, Houston scored 130 points/100 possessions in four regular games against Minnesota.
To be clear, that demolishes the highest yearly average of any team in the NBA. As NBA.com points out, the highest number of points per 100 possessions this season goes to the Golden State Warriors (112.3) with the Rockets a close second (112.2).
This means that in the four meetings with Minnesota, the Rockets have scored nearly 18 more points per 100 possessions than their yearly average while posting a 4-0 record in the process.
Over that four-game span, Houston topped 120 points in three games, while scoring 116 in the fourth.
If this trend continues, the series will get ugly, and fast.
A large reason Houston was able to put up historical offensive numbers against the Wolves this season stems from the pick-and-roll, which James Harden and Clint Capela used to expose Minnesota’s defense this season.
That being said, the Wolves must rotate better on the pick-and-roll or the Rockets side of the scoreboard will escalate quicker than the Monstars side of the scoreboard vs. the Toon Squad before Bugs brought out Michael’s secret stuff.
In the play above, Capela acts like he’s going to set a screen but instead slips Taj Gibson and heads towards the rim. Jimmy Butler, in hindsight, should have been the one to rotate after the breakdown. He didn’t, resulting in two points for Houston.
Here, Capela sets a screen 25 feet from the rim for Harden to work with. Harden drives, then dishes a pocket-pass to Capela for an and-1. This is almost impossible to stop. If Towns doesn’t front Harden, he will drive to the rim for an easy layup. If one of the Wolves weakside defenders comes down to help, Harden will kick it out to either Ryan Anderson, PJ Tucker, or Luc Mbah a Moute for a three.
To be clear, it’s not just Capela that Harden is great at running the pick-and-roll with. Whether it’s Nene, Anderson, or Tarik Black, Harden can make any big look good.
Four GIF’s later, you get my point. With two point brilliant-passing point guards, an array of lights-out shooters scurried around the perimeter, and a stealthy big man down low, the Rockets have a system perfectly built to execute the pick-and-roll.
No matter the coverage the Wolves use to defend the pick and roll (switching, hedge and recover, blitzing, or ICE) they must practice these coverages over and over in practices leading up to the series, or their defense will continue to look silly and they’ll give up easy buckets.
One thing I thought Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau did well Wednesday vs. Denver was lineup usage.
In the upcoming series, lineup usage, specifically staggering lineups so one of Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, or Karl-Anthony Towns is always on the floor will be extra important. The Rockets have too good of role players to trot out a five-man lineup of Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, Jamal Crawford, Nemanja Bjelica, and Gorgui Dieng. If they do, it could cost the Wolves a chance at a competitive series.
The difference between staggering of lineups between the two teams this season are wild, too. Per NBA.com, the Wolves five-man lineup of Jeff Teague-Andrew Wiggins-Jimmy Butler-Taj Gibson-Karl-Anthony Towns has played 1131 minutes this season. That is far and away the most used five-man lineup for Thibs, with the second most at 381 with Bjelica instead of Butler.
In contrast, the Rockets most used five-man lineup of James Harden-Chris Paul-PJ Tucker-Trevor Ariza-Clint Capela has played 267(!) total minutes this season. Injuries, and a deep Houston bench filled with offensive weapons headlined by Eric Gordon, who allows Houston to rest one superstar without sacrificing much shooting or playmaking, can certainly be attributed to the eye-popping difference.
That said, the playoffs are a time for experimenting. Only the best lineups are trotted out and put to the test. Unfortunately for the Wolves, the Rockets have three five-man lineups that have played at least 130 minutes this season and accrued a 119.4 or higher offensive rating.
My gawd they are amazing.
Point guard: Jeff Teague vs. Chris Paul
A showdown between two Wake Forest products. Do you remember early in the year when we complained about Teague every single game? That slowly went away and now we hardly criticize his play (instead all the anger has gone towards Thibs). Teague has improved so much during the year and just clinched his 8th playoff berth in as many seasons. Concerning Paul, his status as one of the best point guards of all time is, for the most part, intact. However, he has failed to advance to the Western Conference Finals at any point in his career. This looks like his best shot to do that. Advantage: Rockets
Shooting guard: Jimmy Butler vs. James Harden
The two laced 'em up for Team Stephen in this year’s NBA All-Star game. Two bonafide superstars, Butler is the better defender while Harden is the better offensive force. Get excited to watch these two ball for four (or more!) games. Advantage: Rockets
Small forward: Andrew Wiggins vs. Trevor Ariza
Rolling into the playoffs fresh off draining the two biggest free throws of his life, Wiggins has proven he has the ability to elevate his team when he plays hard on both sides of the ball and the Wolves will need him at his best this series. Regarding Ariza, I’ve always been a big fan of his. He’s one of the many quality 3&D wings the Rockets possess and an important part of their makeup. Advantage: Wolves
Power forward: Taj Gibson vs. PJ Tucker
Not gonna lie, it felt pretty good seeing Taj Gibson make ultra-clutch plays Wednesday night after campaigning for him for two straight years while the rest of the OTP staff mocked my love for him. He’s been very Andre Iguodala-like for Minnesota, especially with his quick hands. He defines consistency. Tucker, on the other hand, is a brute force of strength who shines defensively. To be concise, this matchup involved two players heavily involved in doing all the little things that lead to wins for their teams. Advantage: Split
Center: Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Clint Capela
In all four regular season matchups, Capela gave Towns fits defensively. KAT will rarely struggle offensively, it’s his defense that has proved faulty. This could be the most important matchup for the Wolves in this series and if Towns can dominate it, Minnesota has a legitimately fighting chance at this series. Capela, Houston’s best rebounder, and a budding offensive player, won’t make that an easy task. Advantage: Wolves
The playoffs are where the stars shine
The advantage of playing bench players during the regular season is it helps coaches keep their starters healthy for the playoffs. Also, it lets them develop and evaluate their bench players more.
One advantage the Wolves possess in this series is their surplus of stars in their starting lineup. Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler are All-Stars, Andrew Wiggins can play like one when he wants, and Jeff Teague is just three years removed from an All-Star season.
Having two of the best three players on the floor for three-quarters of the game, should you consider Butler and Towns to be better than Paul, will certainly be an advantage the Wolves should be able to utilize.
Karl-Anthony Towns has the ability to take over games offensively, especially if Houston goes small, and he'll need to have the series of his life if they're going to win. Jimmy Butler will also need to have a massive series, and alongside Towns, could give the Rockets a run for their money.
In the most important time of the NBA season, the stars will be playing the most. The Wolves have two of the biggest in the game and even if they can’t best Houston’s dynamic duo in that department, they should at least be able to match.
Nonetheless, the Wolves have playmakers all over the floor and as we know, offense has not been the achilles heel this season.
If you’re looking for a way the Wolves can win this series, they’ll need to flip the switch defensively. Second, they have to hope the Rockets go ice-cold from the 3-point line in at least three of the games and shoot the lights out themselves. Third, Jimmy Butler will have to shut James Harden down. And last, Houston’s lack of playoff success and history of playoff ineptitude repeats allowing the Wolves to pull off the upset.
But this is not the same Rockets team from the past. This team is much better.
The Rockets will win this series because the Wolves defense probably won’t improve in the playoffs. Minnesota has been one of the NBA's worst defensive teams this season and ranks 23rd in defensive efficiency. The Rockets, as said above, have an elite offense that can exploit the Wolves in a hurry. Plus, they finished 6th in defensive rating, 12 spots higher than last season.
The Wolves have enough talent and veteran leadership to win one game, but that’s it.
Rockets in five.