Imagine a seven-game series against them.

While the Timberwolves have only played against the Golden State Warriors – and now the Houston Rockets, after their 116-98 loss on Thursday – once this season, it’s quite clear that the Wolves are not yet on that level.

Yes, the Timberwolves have played top-notch basketball, have an MVP-level player this year in Jimmy Butler, a newfound two-way star in Karl-Anthony Towns and a team that could very well end up as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.

They’re a legitimately good team, but the Rockets showed on Thursday that they’re on another level.

The Rockets and Wolves stack up similarly in terms of offensive and defensive rating, and aren’t that far off in terms of league standings.

Team Offensive Rating (NBA Rank) Defensive Rating (NBA Rank) Net Rating (NBA Rank)
Timberwolves 110.5 (3rd) 106.4 (19th) 4.1 (5th)
Rockets 112.3 (2nd) 105.5 (13th) 7.3 (2nd)

 
This comes with the caveat that the Rockets have managed to stay this good statistically, and in the top two in the West, all with scattered injuries to both James Harden and Chris Paul.

With Harden back in the lineup on Thursday, and Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green out on suspension, the Wolves gave their best shot defensively.

And early on, it worked.

The team defense in the first quarter was stellar, and featured some fantastic rim protection from Towns, who finished the game with 13 defensive rebounds and five blocks.

It might have been Towns’ best rim protection all year. It was at its best when Towns was grabbing the ball post-block, and subsequently igniting the offense.

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Meanwhile, with the exception of Towns and Butler, the Wolves failed to find any consistent offense. They struggled to consistently find good looks, often resulting in bad shot clock misses.

Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica provided some good minutes in the second quarter, and the starters started to figure it out as the game went on, but late-quarter shooting from Houston is what ultimately put this game away.

Those late-quarter moments, in a way, are what separates the Rockets and the Wolves for now.

The Wolves made eight 3-pointers in this game, which is actually right on point with their season average in makes per game. It’s been noted in the past, but they’re towards the bottom in the league in makes, attempts and percentage from deep.

The Rockets – and the Warriors, for that matter – are the exact opposite in that regard.

The Rockets take, and make, the most 3-pointers in the league and are in the top half in the league in percentage. They run the offense through Harden and Paul, but move the ball a lot with shooters all over the floor, all prepared to get a shot up.

That makes them incredibly difficult to guard, and even tougher to keep up with.

Most nights, the big scorer is Harden. On a Thursday night when he was clearly rusty and on a minute limit, the ball kept moving.

All you needed Thursday was to look at the performances of Eric Gordon and Luc Mbah a Moute to eclipse Minnesota’s 3-point total. They made 17 total – more than twice as many as Minnesota – and that was the biggest difference for them in the game.

The Wolves and Rockets are close in terms of team offense/defense statistics, but the 3-point shooting is the big separator. General manager Daryl Morey used math when setting his team up; only bringing guys in that are willing and able to take a lot of treys.

Even if the Wolves wanted to shoot more, they don’t have the personnel to do it. As mentioned on the TNT broadcast by analyst Grant Hill, Towns is the best shooter. After that, they don’t really have a reliable marksman who should be taking a bunch of long balls.

They could be shooting more from deep, yes, but how much more is very unclear, especially when considering their already-good offensive rating.

Even Mbah a Moute – a former Wolf who used to be a liability from outside – found his shot in Philadelphia in 2014, is taking three 3-pointers per game this season.

When in Minnesota, deep balls weren’t on his mind. In Houston, he knows it’s part of his job, and his body language on the perimeter reflects that.

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If the Wolves were to find themselves in a second-round matchup with the Rockets in the playoffs, Butler, Towns and Wiggins might have some big nights, but the dynamic offense Mike D’Antoni runs in Houston is the difference.

And that’s not even to mention the above-average defense they’ve displayed for much of the season, and for much of Thursday’s matchup.

In short, the Timberwolves are a good team good enough to beat the Rockets, but the Rockets proved their advantage on Thursday. The Warriors did the same early in the season, albeit against a very different Wolves team.

The fact that they’ve moved from a 31-win team to a possible third seed in one offseason is incredible in itself; getting to the level of Houston and Golden State should be the next step.

For now, they’ve established themselves amongst the next best group in the league; teams like Cleveland, Toronto, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. That’s not bad company to be in.

As evidenced Thursday, they won’t become Golden State or Houston this year, and that’s okay.


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