After a big win over the Clippers, the Minnesota Timberwolves will take on the Houston Rockets in a nationally-televised affair. What should we watch for?
For the second time this season, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be hosting the Houston Rockets. In the first matchup on Dec. 3, Minnesota was able to beat Houston, 103-91.
Lineups have slightly changed since the first matchup between these two teams. James Ennis, a former starter for the Rockets, was traded to Philadelphia last week. Clint Capela was also starting at the time and has been shelved for the past month due to injury.
Kenneth Faried and Iman Shumpert have now been added to the rotation.
For the Wolves, Robert Covington is out and replaced by rookie Josh Okogie — who didn’t even play against Houston the first time around. Dario Saric has also been promoted to starter over Taj Gibson.
What will be the three key points in determining the winner of this game?
1. James Harden — Half man, half machine
Just five days after playing Minnesota in December, James Harden began his historic 30-point-game streak — which is now up to 30 games (almost halfway to Wilt Chamberlain’s record!).
Harden is undoubtedly the machine that keeps Houston’s offense chugging soundly. At the time of the first matchup between these two, Houston was just 11-12. Since then, due in large part to Harden’s run, Houston has won 22 of 33 games and is up to fifth in the Western Conference (tied for fourth, record-wise).
Holding Harden under 30 points should be the obvious goal, whether that is possible or not. If it isn’t, forcing him to shoot inefficiently and limiting his playmaking ability may be the only way for Minnesota to have a chance.
2. 3-point shooting
Unsurprisingly, Houston leads the league in 3-point frequency since the beginning of 2019 — by a healthy margin of 11.6 percent. (They lead the league for the whole season at 48.2 percent, a 10.1 percent margin.) They rank 22nd in percentage made (34.9) over that span. The sheer volume alone, however, gives them an immense advantage.
Thanks in part to their 3-point frequency, Houston has ranked 10th in the league since Jan. 1 in effective field goal percentage despite the below average percentage of makes.
Minnesota isn’t going to be able to stop Houston from taking 3s, and they won’t be able to keep up with them in that department (Wolves rank 26th in frequency). But forcing the Rockets to take tough shots from deep will put pressure on them to take shots they don’t want to take (mid-range!).
While Houston is an offensive juggernaut, Minnesota does have one major advantage here: rebounding.
Since Jan. 1, Minnesota ranks no. 1 in the league in offensive rebounding rate (subscription, Cleaning The Glass). Houston ranks 20th. On the defensive end (i.e. allowing the other team second-chance rebounds), Minnesota ranks 14th while Houston ranks 29th.
Faried has been a nice addition for them, but these numbers show how much Capela’s absence hurts the Rockets in a way other than rim protection.
With Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the league’s best rebounders, living in the paint, it seems likely that the Timberwolves will soundly win the rebounding advantage in this one. They won’t be able to rely on just this to come out on top, however.