There was always a chance of this happening.
As well as the Timberwolves played in Game 3, there was always a chance that the Rockets would have their own “stars aligned” game.
The Rockets had a top-two offense, and had a 50-point third quarter. They have a top-six defense, and kept the top-five Timberwolves offense at bay until things garbage time hit. They have the expected MVP, who dropped 22 of his 36 points in a merciless 50-point third quarter that put the Timberwolves in a brutal 3-1 series hole.
The Target Center noise was the most consistent part of Minnesota’s homecourt advantage. In the rotation, it was a bit more spotty.
They got production from Derrick Rose and (eventually) Karl-Anthony Towns, but didn’t get the same fire from Jimmy Butler or Jeff Teague — the latter of whom suffered a finger injury in the first quarter, which might have played a role in his ineffectiveness.
They knew if they hit the open 3, defended Houston’s elite pick-and-roll well and kept the game at their pace, they could contend with the Houston Rockets.
They could tie the series.
But the Wolves didn’t shoot the 3 well — they shot 36 percent from deep after shooting 56 percent in Game 3. They didn’t play at a quick pace — they only scored eight fast-break points and failed to control possession.
And, after the first half, they didn’t guard Houston’s pick and roll — nor its primary architect — well at all.
After the Wolves played near-perfect basketball for 48 minutes on Saturday at 24 minutes on Monday, a 50-20 third-quarter score unraveled any bit of progress they had made.
“We gave them everything,” Tom Thibodeau said, bluntly, after the game.
Even in the two prior losses, the Wolves have managed some impressive leads early in games. The trend continued on Monday as the Wolves had a seven-point lead with 7:50 to go in the second quarter. But as James Harden and Chris Paul — both of whom went make-less in the first quarter — started to heat up, the Rockets would finish the half up one and with all the momentum.
In the aggregate, the Rockets offense is nearly impossible to stop. Guarding it effectively in consecutive games, statistically, is nearly impossible.
In that sense, what happened in the second half is somewhat expected. Perhaps not to the extent that it went, but a Rockets outburst always felt like it was on the way.
But the defensive inconsistencies from the first half to the second were both puzzling and troubling. The change in defensive approach on Harden was downright confusing.
In the first half, both Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins held their own on Harden. On several defensive stands, the Wolves held their own.
On a shooter like Harden — especially one that can score with little to no room — the defender is almost always supposed to come over the screen. In other words, they’re supposed to try to stay on their man and keep their hand in the face of the ball handler.
This is an example:[videopress AjJ8dYOZ]
Even in isolation, the Wolves held their own. Even on the plays where they’d switch Wiggins onto the assumed MVP, the Wolves held him in check.[videopress zu92nQHW]
As things started to slip away in the third, the Wolves inexplicably started going away from what worked on Harden and Paul. They started going under the screen — aka going behind the back of the screener, giving them more time and room to shoot.
Harden and Paul combined for 37 points in the third quarter. As brilliant as they are offensively, a lot of those buckets dropped due to lapses defensively. But no matter how they got their buckets, that number might say it all.
As well as Butler played defense in the first half — and throughout the entire season — he got caught more than once in these types of situations.[videopress sMC54GCB]
Harden and Paul had three 3s each in the third quarter, and they all came on plays where the defender went under the screen.
Butler smiled when talking about the defense, perhaps suggesting something about the nature of the screens. Still, he was aware of what happened in the third.
“A lot of phenomenal screens are being set,” Butler said, grinning. “Go over on some, go under on some, try to contest every 3-pointer he puts up there. Chase him into some 2s when you go over. It’s hard enough to guard him, but you just have to keep going.”
All the good Timberwolves defense played in Game 3 went out the window in that one quarter. The Rockets shooting corps — more specifically, their two stars — were quick to make them pay.
“You’ve got to make decisions as to how you’re going to defend certain things,” a noticeably frustrated Thibodeau said. “You read, react.”
Once Harden had re-established his dominance, it was easy to get the rest of the team going. It’s not a coincidence that it also became the quarter that got Eric Gordon finally going.
This game was a rough blow to the momentum the Wolves built in Game 3, but a result like this was always a possibility. The Rockets have a top-two offense, a top-six defense and the MVP — despite that, they hadn’t yet put all those elite team traits together in one game.
But they showed they can beat this team as recently as Saturday. They showed that, despite the clear roster advantage Houston has, Minnesota can do it.
“You look at it one game at a time,” Jamal Crawford said. “I’ve been on teams against Houston where I was up 3-1.”
Crawford was referring to the 2015 playoffs, where his No. 3 LA Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the No. 2 seed Rockets in the second round. The difference, of course, is the newfound firepower of this year’s Rockets that wasn’t all there three years ago.
Still, if the Wolves want a chance at winning, memories of 3-1 comebacks like Crawford’s might be their best chance at motivation.
But if Monday’s third quarter hit as hard to the team’s psyche as it did to the scoreboard, it will take more than motivation.
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