Between the photo finish in Game 1, the double-digit win in Game 3 and the big first halves in Games 4 and 5, the Timberwolves gave fans a dose of what productive playoff basketball from their team can look like.
They got an opening three games of productive basketball from Andrew Wiggins, a closing game and a half of a rediscovered Karl-Anthony Towns post game, a productive Derrick Rose off the bench, a series leader in Jimmy Butler and a composed Jeff Teague down the stretch throughout most of the series.
There’s hope for Timberwolves basketball in the future, and the five games they got in their first playoff series in 14 years proves that. Them playing the elite Houston Rockets, however, muddled most of the good stuff.
The Timberwolves lost Game 5 122-104, marking the end of a series that went about the way most expected in terms of game count. The Rockets were predicted by all to win and by some to sweep, and they didn’t let their fans down. With the exception of one shooting spectacle from the Wolves in Game 3, Mike D’Antoni’s MVP and cast of perfectly-placed role players were every bit as good as advertised in the regular season.
And therein lies part of the problem for the Timberwolves this year — as good as they are, and as good as they might have looked had they finished with a higher seed, it’s tough to fully judge a playoff series against a team as good as Houston.
The Timberwolves led in Game 5 by as many as 10 points, but the entire ordeal felt incredibly similar to Game 4 — they once held a seven-point lead in the infamous Game 4 where they would later give up 50 third-quarter points and lose by double digits.
Sure enough, the Rockets figured things out and caught fire Wednesday night, dropping 30 points to the Timberwolves’ 15. The most glaring stat of the quarter: The Rockets’ constant 3-point attack landed in the third, as they hit six treys; meanwhile, the Timberwolves didn’t hit a 3 the entire quarter.
Like most Rockets games this year, 3-point massacres — paired with James Harden’s general dominance — tend to erase any progress a team has made throughout a game. In the case of the Wolves, it generally erased the good things that happened throughout the five-game set.
For the most part, it erased the great start to the series had by Wiggins, who struggled mightily in Games 4 and 5. After speculation for what “version” of Wiggins we’d see in the postseason after an inconsistent regular season, he shot over 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3. More impressive, though, might have been the actual selection of shots he was taking.
Playoff Andrew Wiggins is efficient Andrew Wiggins.
3gms vs. HOU: 17p 6r 3a (50% FG 42% 3ptrs) and his shot selection…
Paint: 62% (13/21)
Mid: 29% (2/7)
3ptrs: 42% (5/12)
83% of his shots have come from paint/3-point line pic.twitter.com/xRuzt72gwV
— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) April 22, 2018
The idea of Wiggins taking almost exclusively paint shots and 3s would be a welcome sight for next year, and would likely do wonders to his offensive efficiency. Even on nights when he isn’t hitting from deep, an efficient shot chart can ultimately lead to better shots. Tack on the vast improvements through the end of the regular season, there’s still a chance for Wiggins to turn himself into a serious piece in this team’s future.
Shot selection was rarely a problem for fellow youngster Towns, but it was early in this series. His shooting got progressively better as the series went on, but it took a while before he looked completely comfortable.
And it wasn’t until the series finale that we finally saw the aggressive post play that was so common for so much of the regular season. In the four matchups against Houston during the regular season, Towns averaged 23.9 points on 56.9 percent shooting. He wasn’t afraid to attack the talented Clint Capela in the paint, and generally didn’t appear fazed when the double team post-switch would come.
In the first three and a half games, he did. But when the first half began on Wednesday, he looked to have his swagger back. The physicality was back, double team or not.
Towns kept it going offensively on Wednesday with a perfect shooting performance in the second half, but again, the Rockets collectively drowned out any noise Towns could make by himself.
Off the bench, the only consistent individual play came from Derrick Rose, who finished the series averaging 14.2 points, shooting 50.9 percent from the field and a hilariously high 70 percent from 3-point range.
But he also led the team in usage, a number the Rockets were likely very okay with conceding. It’s hard not to credit Rose for his on-court successes, even if it might have at the expense of fewer possessions finishing in the hands of big-minute playmakers.
That’s not all, either. The Timberwolves lone win came because they shot over 50 percent from 3 and stifled Houston’s massive offensive attack. They got a collected Jeff Teague for the majority of the series and a continued sense of playoff leadership from alpha dog Jimmy Butler. They got grit from Taj Gibson. They got the occasional offensive spark from Jamal Crawford.
The Wolves looked like a playoff team, but the Houston Rockets looked like a title contender.
For now, that might be okay. Very few expected the Timberwolves to truly compete for a title — meanwhile, the Rockets made it clear very quickly that their candidacy to upend the Golden State Warriors is very real. The Wolves getting outed in five games, in that sense, is not a surprise. Falling to the No. 8-seed in the Western Conference went as expected.
The way the Timberwolves got there is another story, however. It’s partially Butler missing the number of games he did, and it’s partially them losing games they should have won. But there’s also more to it.
The good stuff from this series — and in some ways, this season — might get muddled by the fact that the Rockets made such quick work of them. But as long as that doesn’t blind them from the positives that came from this series — and this season — a chance at real progress heading into the offseason and into next season can happen.
Towns and Wiggins got their first dose of real playoff basketball, and got it against a team competing for a title. They now have first-hand experience and knowledge of what a contender in live playoff action looks like. Collectively, they and their veteran teammates now have a playoff series under their belts that they can build off of.
The Rockets made quick work of the Timberwolves in Game 5 — and the series, as a result — but that work can go a long way if it’s treated the right way.
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