Welcome to Part 19 in our series previewing each of the Timberwolves’ opponents and the respective upcoming season series.
Tale of the tape: Minnesota was swept by Houston last season, with two defeats coming by single digits.
The high-powered offense of the Rockets was just too much for the Wolves to handle. Although they put up triple digits in each game, they just couldn’t get over the top and squeak out a victory.
The Rockets had a very disappointing year last season, but still managed to squeak into the #8 seed in the Western Conference. They struggled mightily on defense, giving up over 106 points per game.
The Timberwolves did take advantage of that, but struggled to keep the Houston offense at bay. Andrew Wiggins had a 28-point performance in the series, along with Karl-Anthony Towns putting up a 32 points in the second match-up.
What’s new? Usually, I just have included new faces in this portion, but the Rockets have a unique situation with James Harden moving to the point guard position.
Switching Harden to point guard is vital to how the Houston offense will run. Personally, I don’t understand this decision; Harden is a relentless shooter, and yes, he can be deadly with the ball in his hands. But how good will he be at spacing the floor? Finding other open shooters before taking his own? He has obvious issues on the defensive end as well.
It is of utmost importance that the Timberwolves take advantage of this. Make Harden uncomfortable. Force him into those bad shots off the dribble. Essentially, make him play the position.
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At the end of the day, he is who he is. He will score and he will run. But force him into mistakes and highlight his laziness on defense and he can become a non-factor.
Now, back to the script. Replacing The Beard at his former position is newcomer Eric Gordon. He was out for a large portion of last season due to injury but was very productive for the New Orleans Pelicans when he was on the floor. He likes to shoot the 3, averaging 38 percent from that range for his career.
We may see Gordon run the point at times, where he will be more likely to drive and ultimately get to the free throw line, where he’s an 81.4 percent career shooter.
Ryan Anderson also joins the Rockets after spending last season with Gordon in New Orleans. With the chemistry that those two have, they may be apt to find each other often.
Anderson was one of those guys that got a monster contract without the numbers to necessarily warrant it. He only started seven games last season, and although he performed well off the bench, he’s not a proven starter.
Anderson will have a chance to prove his worth, as he will likely find time in the starting lineup this season.
What’s the same? Perhaps the biggest key to how this series will swing will be the battle of the benches.
Houston returns many key pieces to their bench, including Patrick Beverly, K.J. McDaniels, ex-Timberwolves player Corey Brewer, and Clint Capela. On paper, a lot of these guys have great match-ups against their Minnesota counterpart.
Someone like Beverly, who has been one of the best guards off the bench recently, will really test Kris Dunn. Capela may find his way into the starting five, but if he comes off the bench, guys like Cole Aldrich and Nemanja Bjelica will have to make sure they do their job on the boards.
Trevor Ariza will be back in the starting lineup, too. Although his time in Houston has been a bit bland, he is a very physical three-man, and Andrew Wiggins will have to get tough defensively to keep him in control.
Some guys who saw lesser roles last season may see an increased role this season. Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell will probably battle for time as the first big forward off the bench, with both providing different roles. Dekker is more of a stretch-man who can shoot from distance, while Harrell is a physical presence down low and will scrap for points and boards.
My prediction? To me, the Rockets are a tale of two teams. When they are on, they are really on — especially offensively. However, if their offense is struggling, their defense struggles to keep them in games.
To go along with that, these are two franchises trending in different directions. Houston has had lofty expectations over the last few years, only to fall short year after year. They really fell apart towards the latter half of last season, specifically, and failed to prove themselves as a serious long-term contender. Minnesota, on the other hand, is trending upward.
Because of these factors, I’m going to say the Wolves will take a split in this series. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Minnesota win the series. However, I think a split is more realistic.
These games are likely to be shootouts, so the key to this series will be not wasting possessions and taking care of the ball. These games could get out of hand quickly if the Rockets offense is allowed to have opportunities to make runs because of things like that.
The first game of this series will come on December 17th in Minneapolis.