In the Youngkin Center Gym on the outer edge of Rice University’s campus, Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Aaron Brooks were standing near the top of the key after Tuesday afternoon practice.
From my vantage point, it was impossible to hear what they were saying, but it looked like something pretty specific. As they spoke and occasionally simulated an assortment of movements, it seemed as though they were trying to figure out what the hell they were going to do about James Harden.
In their first playoff game of the 2010s, the Timberwolves lost, but the game was interesting. And considering their competition — the top-seeded Houston Rockets — that could be viewed as an accomplishment in itself.
The Timberwolves lost by three points to a team that only had eight games decided by three points or less the entire season, and did it without the typical play of All-Stars Butler and Towns. The pair combined for a 7-of-20 shooting night and just 23 points.
Meanwhile, Harden — one of the toughest players in the NBA to figure out — scored in every way imaginable. The Rockets shot 10 of 37 from 3, but Harden made seven of them. He also attempted nine of the team’s 23 free throws. Of Houston’s 15 assists, he had eight.
Harden is going to win the MVP, and on a night when his teammates didn’t bring it, he showed up on their behalf. He took and made ridiculous outside shots when they needed it, and he got into the paint and scored — or fed Clint Capela — whenever he wanted.
“I thought overall, you have to be concerned about the dribble penetration,” Tom Thibodeau said at Tuesday’s practice. “What they do at the rim and, of course, the 3s. We’re on the road, we’re an 8-seed, and we have a chance to win. Six minutes to go, we got the lead.”
Thibodeau is right.
Despite struggles from Butler and Towns, and despite foul trouble from Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague, the Timberwolves were in the game and even led at one point in the fourth quarter. This was all against a No. 1 seed that had their entire starting lineup active, healthy and not in foul trouble.
But on the other end, the Rockets didn’t play their best basketball, either. Chris Paul had six turnovers and didn’t shoot the ball well, they remained without key bench pieces and generally speaking, the Rockets simply missed shots they normally make.
The trio of Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green — all of whom shot over six 3s per game in the regular season, and shot over 36 percent on those attempts — shot a combined 1 of 14 from deep in Game 1.
The Timberwolves do deserve some credit for this. There were some missed shots where they either forced the shooter out deep, or a hand was in the shooter’s face. At the same time, the Rockets also missed a number of wide open shots.
But according to NBA.com/stats, the Rockets got 33 looks considered to be “open” (shots where the shooter is given 4-6 feet of space) or “wide open (6+ feet of space). Looking back at the film, there are definitely some shots considered “open” that could be disputed as better-contested than the stat suggest, but some were not. The Rockets got some incredibly good looks that simply did not go in.
Ariza had a few.
As did Gordon — note: Gordon takes and makes shots from this distance all the time.
“I thought some of it was that we defended well, some of it was they missed shots,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the playoffs…. You know, we had some wide open shots that we missed.”
His team echoed that statement.
“They definitely missed shots, but I think all in all, we’re going to live with the shots they took and made,” Butler said Tuesday.
The beauty of the Rockets offense is when the shooting isn’t working, they have a human cheat code in Harden to fall back on. And if the shooting isn’t falling and the team is ganging up on Harden’s attack, he almost always has Clint Capela to lob it up to at the rim.
But if the Rockets do start making their shots starting on Wednesday’s Game 2 — and their regular season numbers suggest they will — what does that mean for the Timberwolves?
On the other hand, if Butler and Towns improve from their rough shooting nights in Game 1, what does that mean for the Rockets?
The playoffs are a unique beast, but this year’s regular season matchups still might be the best way to determine it. For the sake of fairness, we’ll only look at the first two times these teams played — the third time, Butler hurt his knee, causing him to subsequently miss their final regular season matchup.
And if you’re doing that, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Timberwolves come out looking good.
In those two games, Towns had much more efficient stat lines, Butler had one great game, and they still lost each matchup by 18 points. Even though the Wolves starting lineup as a whole played better in those two games than they did in Game 1, the Rockets had their 3-point shot working.
If Houston gets it going in Game 2, there aren’t a lot of ways for the Wolves to beat them. It’s not their fault — the Rockets won 65 games this season, and their ability to hit 3s (and free throws) at a ridiculous clip is how they did it.
But that’s older sample size than Game 1. For all the problems the Wolves had in the regular season, they had a lead with six minutes remaining in the game. They also had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds on Sunday. Maybe that’s progress, despite everything that could have gone wrong otherwise.
Even though the Rockets missed some open 3s and didn’t have the usual production from their newly-acquired point guard, they still had an MVP-level from Harden, insane production from Capela and the homecourt advantage. The Wolves still kept it close
It’s unclear how either team will look in Game 2. History suggests the Rockets will come out on top, but it’s clear that the Timberwolves want to alter that expectation.
“It makes us more hungry, more confident,” Towns said. “We felt we played well, but we made some mistakes here and there and it cost us in the end. If we could tweak little things here and there, we could do something truly special.”
If the Wolves win Game 2, they’ll return to the Target Center with homecourt advantage. In the meantime, practicing at a college’s gym will do just fine.
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