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Change in plans: An inside look at how the Wolves beat the Rockets

Jeff Teague let out a primal scream and pounded his chest after his three-pointer gave the Timberwolves a 92-75 lead with 10 minutes, 49 seconds to play in the game.

Teague told reporters on Friday that the Wolves needed to fight fire with fire. Despite struggling to find their shot, Houston had the edge in the series solely because of the volume of three-point attempts. Efficiency-wise, the Wolves were two points better than the Rockets but hadn’t shot enough of them to matter.

The Timberwolves had an awakening and a better approach for Game 3 on Saturday at Target Center. In truth, they had to since they already trailed 2-0 in the series. Falling behind 3-0 would be an insurmountable deficit. What the Wolves executed on Saturday not only kept them in the series but allowed them to crack it open.

Playing behind the line

We already know the Timberwolves take more two-pointers than any NBA team. This is part of what makes the Rockets a naturally poor match-up. However, would you believe that the Wolves made as many treys (15) as their opponent in Game 3? The Rockets may have had 14 more attempts but that didn’t matter in the end.

The Timberwolves didn’t run anything unique or complex. All they did was find good, clean looks in rhythm rather than forcing a contested prayer at the end of the shot clock. Not only is this repeatable, it’s something that shouldn’t be considered out of the ordinary for an NBA team.

Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler set the tone early. Wiggins was 2-of-2 from beyond the arc and Butler chipped in another in the first quarter. The Wolves made it clear that if they were going to go down, they were going to go down shooting.

The two perimeter players each hit 4-of-6 three-point attempts in the game, which would have tied the Rocket with the most made triples. It also helped to have Teague connect on 3-for-5 of his shots from deep.

Going forward, it is going to be tough to expect Butler and Wiggins to hit four three-pointers per game. Having three players combine for 11 per game also would be exceptional. But what can be repeating is decisive shot making and not passing up good looks. That’s what happened when Karl-Anthony Towns and Derrick Rose hit their three-pointers and Rose’s sealed the victory.

Teague said after the game that Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau never gets upset when someone takes a good shot and misses. Thibodeau said they’re working on getting those three-pointers in the flow of the offense and it’s something they’re getting better at. Not only did the Wolves fight fire with fire on Saturday, they gave the Rockets a taste of their own medicine.

A double dose of their own medicine

The Wolves managed only one point off of 11 turnovers in losing 104-101 to Houston in Game 1.  That’s a comically poor ratio and one that keeps them from holding a 2-1 series lead. Conversely, the Rockets had 18 points off 14 turnovers.

Less than a week later, the Wolves had become ball hawks. In Game 3, the Wolves gave up six points off of seven turnovers while scoring 17 points off 10 forced turnovers. What’s impressive is that 10 turnovers isn’t a lot to force and averaging one point off per turnover forced would be good. Yet, the Wolves were getting 1.7 points per turnover on Saturday. That is a ratio that will move the needle in a team’s favor.

Like the offense, the defense didn’t do anything spectacular. They remained engaged and alert in the passing lanes, snuffing out careless passes. Rather than emphatically swatting a shot out of bounds, they were often tipped to a teammate to initiate the break like Andrew Wiggins’ in the second half.

You don’t need a defensive specialist or some advanced scheme to play defense this way. The Timberwolves had nine steals and a 3-second defensive call in their favor. Those were the 10. Defensive stalwarts such as Rose and Gorgui Dieng had two apiece to lead the team. Rose and Dieng’s steals also led to easy fastbreak dunks that got the sell out crowd of 18,978 even more into the game.

Realistically, the Wolves are somewhere in between the teams we saw in Game 1 and 3 as far as turnovers go. We can figure that they’re not as sloppy as the team we saw in Game 1 because they protected the ball all season. The Wolves will have at least one more home game and if they can force turnovers and capitalize on them, there could be a Game 6 at Target Center.

Playing within themselves

It would have been easy for the Wolves to come in and play like a team that was afraid to lose again. We had seen just about seen the worst of it from Towns in Game 2. Trying to force the action out of desperation will leave you vulnerable a lot of the time. These were a few of the performances that were notable on Saturday because guys were not trying to play too hard.

  • Derrick Rose: Had 17 points on 16 shots in 21 minutes but rarely let himself get carried away. Sure, once he made a few he started trying to create for himself rather than let the game come to him but this was a key performance in the win.
  • Karl-Anthony Towns: Mike D’Antoni’s team came out with a mission to frustrate Towns in his first home playoff appearance. Anytime Towns touched the ball, a double team would come and he would swiftly find an open teammate. Towns had six points, 10 rebounds, and two assists in the first half but finished with 18 points on 13 shots, 16 rebounds, and three assists. It was nice to see him not panic and trust that his shot would fall at some point.
  • Andrew Wiggins: Whether it was Teague, Butler, or Thibodeau, everyone said the same thing: the difference for Wiggins in these playoffs has been his aggressiveness. Not only has Wiggins been more assertive, he’s been a smarter player. I mentioned his block that he tipped to Jamal Crawford to begin the break but there was a rebound he grabbed underneath the basket and flipped to Teague at the top of the key to reset the play. Wiggins easily could have tried going up for a difficult shot but made the smart team play. Wiggins finished with 20 points and also added five rebounds and five assists.

Defending James Harden

James Harden is averaging 28.3 points on 40 percent shooting from the field and 36 percent shooting on three-pointers in this series. Harden has had to remain at the free-throw line in order to compensate for his struggles in the past two games.

Every season, Harden proves he’s one of the toughest covers in the league. You can’t foul him because he hits his free throws. You can’t double him because his teammates cannot be left open. And guarding him one-on-one is dangerous because he’s a talented play maker and adept at getting to the line.

This has left the Wolves in a quandary but they may have found an acceptable solution based on things we saw on Saturday.

The Wolves used Butler as a help defender rather than having him as his full-time defender. This put less of a load on Butler since he didn’t have to guard Harden and he would have the size advantage in his own match-up. The Rockets continually tried to switch Harden on to the Wolves’ point guard and this ensured that the bigger Butler was right there to help.

What was interesting is that the Wolves had little interest in fouling Harden at times. Harden wants fouls and will go to some extreme lengths to draw them. At one point, the Wolves figured it out. Let him have the dunk or layup if it’s wide open rather than foul him and risk the three-point play. Yes, this is potentially dangerous but so is giving him three easy points possession after possession.

Scheming against Harden is an ongoing battle but the Wolves found an acceptable solution for one night. You best believe that D’Antoni and Co. are going to come back with an adjustment for these things in Game 4 on Monday.

The players fed off of the crowd

These fans waited for this moment for 14 years and they did not disappoint. The crowd booed Harden each time he touched the ball early on. They waved their towels as they chanted “MVP! MVP! MVP!” for Butler at the free throw line or “Wolves in 6!” halfway through the fourth quarter.

Make no mistake, the players heard it. Wiggins was asked if in his four years in Minnesota whether he could remember a home crowd like this and he could not. He remarked at how much energy rubbed off of them and how much the team fed into that energy.

Wolves fans created a fun environment in which to watch a basketball game in and one that was conducive to winning.


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