Game 1’s close finish may have given Timberwolves faithful false hope and unrealistic expectations.
After losing 104-101 in the first game of the series, many thought this was a sign that the Wolves could steal a game or make this a competitive series. This ignores the fact Houston swept the season series with three of the four games being decided by double digits. Had non-James Harden Rockets not shot 3-of-27 on 3-pointers, the Rockets would have run away with that first game, too.
Game 2 was a humbling reminder of just how far apart these teams are. The Rockets missed 36 of their 52 3-pointers and still won 102-82. By comparison, the Wolves have attempted 41 treys total in the first two games. Any team that embraces modern basketball strategy is going to have a built-in advantage from the opening tip.
When Harden thrived while his teammates slumped in the series opener, Chris Paul chipped in 27 points, eight assists, and three rebounds to complement Gerald Green’s 21 points off of the bench. That’s what this Rockets team can do. Harden had 12 points on 2-for-18 shooting but made 7-of-8 free throws. Not only did Harden also grab some rebounds and dish some assists, his teammates picked up his slack.
It’s scary to have a player like Harden who can completely carry a team like he did in Game 1 or have teammates talented enough to carry them to an easy win when he has an off night in Game 2.
The fact that Houston can’t get anything to go in and Minnesota still can’t win should say a lot. Of the 16 playoff teams, the Rockets are 15th in 3-point field goal percentage (29.2 percent). Despite their struggles, the 13 made 3-pointers they average double the Wolves’ 6.5 per game precisely. By the way, the Timberwolves aren’t making many 3-pointers either, shooting just 31.7 percent from beyond the arc.
What Houston isn’t doing offensively, they’re making up for defensively. The Rockets’ 96.0 defensive rating is the best among the playoff teams and the Wolves have the fourth-worst turnover percentage. That means a lot of empty possessions with missed shots and sloppy play. In just the first quarter, the Wolves have five turnovers on Wednesday. That total grew to 16 by the end of the game for a team that averaged around a dozen in the regular season and was one of the best in the league at protecting the ball.
There were reasons this was the worst possible matchup for the Timberwolves. Not only was it apparent that the Rockets were the better team but it’s now clear that they have a higher gear for the playoffs. It’s not yet clear if the Wolves do.
Among the team’s biggest problems in this series has been the lackluster play of Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is averaging 6.5 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting 27.8 percent from the field in these playoffs.
In Game 1, the problem was Towns having just nine shot attempts. The team recognized that wouldn’t work and came out of the gate force-feeding Towns in the post. It worked, as Towns hit his first two shots for five total points. For the rest of the game, Towns would take and miss all seven shots to again finish 2-for-9 from the field.
Overcompensation for Game 1 when he didn’t get enough touches may have been the problem. But the team was clearly forcing Towns the ball too often and the Rockets picked up on that. Towns would attempt to post up Nene, get backed away from the basket with Nene’s old-man strength, and throw up a fade away. Or Towns would get the ball with a terrible angle on the basket and instead of recognizing he doesn’t have a good shot, he pulls the trigger anyway instead of passing.
Towns doesn’t need to worry about his shot. This isn’t like him and maybe pressing too hard in his first playoff action. He’s a smarter player than forcing bad step back jumpers over a defender, though he can hit them. If he slows down in these situations and makes the smart play to set up a teammate or drive to the basket rather than away, the rest should fall into place.
The fact that he also has just three fouls in two games is concerning. Towns needs to be more aggressive. You starting center should be getting his hands dirty enough where he gets into more trouble once in awhile, especially with the intensity of the playoffs.
Towns is a player that wants to be great and always put on a good showing, which is admirable. However, it trying to be careful not to do the wrong thing or playing like a hero, he’s not showcasing himself in the best light. He’s rebounding and making some plays defensively but he can be better. Everyone knows Towns is great but he’s still trying too hard to prove it.
For a franchise that hadn’t made the playoff in 14 years, it was important to get over that hump. But when the team slid from the third and fourth seeds, their hopes of winning their first-round series did too. Don’t forget this team was 17-24 away from Target Center and showed the ability to lose to anyone on the road. They needed home-court advantage badly and were unlikely to steal a game on the road anywhere, no less in Houston.
It’s hard to be too disappointed in this series when we already knew: A) Houston was the better team; and B) the Wolves struggle on the road.
What the struggle of Towns and the rest of the team shows is that they have more to learn. Young players like Towns and Andrew Wiggins are seeing what it takes to be truly successful in this league. Everything from the opponent to the ferocity of the crowd ratchets up a few notches. This isn’t something you can’t replicate in the regular season and can only gather from the playoffs.
Gaining this kind of experience is more valuable than having a second first-round pick. The Wolves will still have the 20th pick in what figures to be a deep draft and the team can take this experience in the summer and adjust. Or at least that’s how they should interpret the results of this series.
Even if the Timberwolves are swept and their season ends on Monday, this is on-the-job learning they wouldn’t have gained if they had missed the playoffs and also kept their own pick. The experience is more important than whether or not they can steal a game in this series.