The Timberwolves played a small-ball lineup for much of their five games against the Houston Rockets in the playoffs. What were the results of that group?
Prior to the Game 4 blowout, the Timberwolves wasted many chances to compete in their first-round series against the Houston Rockets.
As expected, the Wolves showed that they were, at least on some level, affected by pressure — surely due to the postseason return after a long time — that affected their decision-making. Karl-Anthony Towns struggled to get position in the post and the ball was seemingly never in his hands at the right time.
However, if James Harden‘s poor shooting percentage was unexpected (just 2-for 14 to start Game 1 and 2-for-18 from the field in Game 2), the Wolves were not been able to take advantage, scoring just one point off of turnovers. (The Rockets, in the same situation, tallied 18 points.)
Another factor to consider is the cold streak Houston shot in the first two games.
The Rockets shot 27 percent behind the arc in Game 1 and 30.8 in Game 2. The Timberwolves did a great job in first two playoff games keeping the Rockets seven percentage points under their average per-game number. However, we should add also that the Rockets missed many uncontested shots, and overall makde just 40-109 open attempts. This was something that Minnesota took advantage when coach Thibodeau deployed an alternative lineup, far from the traditional starting-five.
SMALL-BALL WAS AN UPGRADED LINEUP
When head coach Tom Thibodeau played a small-ball lineup with Towns as the lone big man, Minnesota had a positive impact on both sides of the floor.
A small backcourt forced Harden to make work harder on defense in dynamic situations. When he was asked to run up and down the baseline, the Rockets had trouble in trying to keep the ball from reaching the corners.
The Rockets prefer to play against conventional lineups composed by two big men in the paint. And, in fact, they have been effective on the defensive side, where instead the Wolves collapsed.
Here, Teague gets stuck with no passing lanes available and throws the ball away.
However, when Towns received the ball with no other big on the court, he was able to use the entire space in the post with some in-out plays.
WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THE STARTING FIVE?
Taj Gibson did not play at his best in this series, and it no doubt had to do with the neck soreness with which he had been dealing with since early April. However, he also had some matchup issues.
Game 3 and Game 4 had the same twist after halftime in that the Rockets went on large runs to take a commanding lead. This happened for two reasons.
First, because of a lack of aggressiveness on the corners and limited mobility when the Twolves tried to double the ball-handler. Harden and Paul are two of the best players in isolation and, when they are in rhythm, it is impossible to stop them.
Minnesota should have tried to force them into bad passes. In this possession, Trevor Ariza moves easily to catch the bounce pass from Paul while his first opponent is too far and in a wrong position.
Minnesota collapsed twice during the third quarter, put simply, because the defense imploded. Here, there are three Wolves defenders on Harden while Gibson is in late on the right corner.
Unfortunately, when Taj was on the court, the defense was not nearly as good as expected. In fact, when he was on the court, Minnesota’s defensive rating was 109.7. This data is little better than many of his teammates, but remains well under his standard — his mark was 107.1 during the regular season.
Because of this, Houston protected Harden, leaving him free to double on Gibson and limiting his defensive duties on the guards (Derrick Rose and Jamal Crawford).
OVERUSED MID-RANGE JUMPER
It’s not a big news that mid-range is not the most proficient zone where to hit shots in modern basketball era. But it wouldn’t necessarily have been a big deal (other than playing the 3-point flame-throwing Rockets, of course) in the playoffs if the Wolves hit them as they did in regular season.
The issue became obvious when they started to force not just 17-footers, but 17-footers with a really high degree of difficulty.
According to NBA.com/stats, Minnesota shot 2-of-15 on turnaround fadeaway shots, 3-of-10 on turnaround shots, 4-of-13 on step-backs and 0-for-5 on fadeaway jump shots.
Given that information, it’s quite incredible that they won one game and survived for much of the rest of the series with those 43 shots attempts with such a low quality of shot selection in general.