Derrick Rose was just staring at the ground.
The first quarter of the game was well underway yet Rose remained fixated on his ankles. From time-to-time, he would peer to his right from the Timberwolves’ bench seat closest to the baseline but he normally kept his head down and sometimes even in his hood. An unacquainted attendee at Toyota Center could have confused him for a fan he was so buried into the bench and perhaps deeper into himself.
However, with 90 seconds left in the first quarter, he shifted gears; Rose checked into the game and played for the rest of the half. Definitively, he was the spark that kept the Wolves in the game.
Back on the bench during timeouts of the first-half, he would incessantly clap and yell as if he knew all that was missing was a little energy.
“You have to stay with them the entire game,” Rose said in the locker room after the game. “I remember in the playoffs against Miami, the only thing you want to do is stay close until the fourth quarter… I think we were right there.”
In a bizarre development, when the second half began, Rose re-assumed the role bench Monk. He, again, settled into the final seat on the bench with his hands crossed and, again, had his head down. Very odd.
Twice during the game he seemingly randomly departed back to the locker room; the first time coming back empty-handed and the second he returned with a black and orange stick used to roll out muscles.
Had he not tallied the best individual first-half on the team, the body language doctor would have diagnosed an immature, disgruntled former-star. Instead, and given his performance (16 points on 7-of-14 shooting, 4 assists, and a season-high 24 minutes), it felt like necessary preparation. It could have been the difference in the game.
With the odds heavily stacked against the Wolves to compete in the series something monumental, something unexpected had to happen because expecting more than the level of play Butler, Taj Gibson, and Jeff Teague had been playing with seemed highly unlikely.
If someone was going to be the x-factor (a player who takes a leap beyond expectations), Andrew Wiggins would have been the likely protagonist. But Wiggins was largely himself; flashes of elite attacking with longer stretches of mediocrity. Butler and Teague were also largely their regular season selves, though Teague’s minutes were limited due to foul trouble.
The x-factor was Rose. He did exceed expectations in a massive way and had Karl-Anthony Towns been anything near himself, that nudge may have been enough. Towns made three shots on nine attempts as he showed serious playoff jitters.
It could have been an epic Bildungsroman for Rose but the tertiary characters in his narrative let him down.
In another surprising development, the bench not only included a productive Derrick Rose but went 10 players deep. At the Wolves Friday afternoon practice, Tom Thibodeau was asked if the rotation would change in the playoffs. He remarked that the number of players who touch the floor in the playoffs “typically goes down.”
Apparently, it was not a typical game. While Tyus Jones, Gorgui Dieng, and Nemanja Bjelica all did play less than eight minutes, they did play.
Jones and Bjelica both had very muted performances; neither player scored while the two combined for a pair of rebounds and a single assist. Dieng did have seven points and three boards but also didn’t pass the body language test; noticeably upset when he was pulled out after his first stint that lasted less than three minutes. Dieng had to be consoled by Wolves’ assistant Ed Pinckney. It will be interesting to see if any of the three continue to receive tick or if the rotation does, in fact, go down.
Towns started slow, missing bunnies he normal puts through with ease. His continued poor play was instigated by an array of double teams.
“We were doubling and trying to throw different things at them,” Mike D’Antoni said of defending Towns. “He never got his rhythm.”
One particular double was an odd juxtaposition as it involved Rose. When Chris Paul and James Harden were Rose’s primary defender, they not only sagged off massively but were often the linchpin of the double. Rose may have been giving the Wolves a spark but his lack of shooting threat punctured Towns’s potential.
Capela’s Bruising Presence
To some extent, it was known that Clint Capela would hurt the Wolves as the roll man in the pick-and-roll or simply on lobs. But Capela, who led the league in effective field goal percentage during the regular season, did that to the tune of 20 first-half points.
“I’ve been here since Clint got here,” James Harden said at the podium post-game. “He’s developed, he listens, he works his butt off every single day, and it shows for big moments like that… Helluva job for Game one.”
It wasn’t only Capela’s scoring that impacted the offensive end of the floor for a Rockets team that needed an offensive boost with expert marksmen, Ryan Anderson, sidelined. Capela’s impact expanded to the boards; he created five additional possessions with offensive rebounds as he reared the ugly head of the Wolves — and specifically Towns — getting pushed around in the interior.
Throughout the season, the Wolves’ interior has been bruised by the likes of Steven Adams, DeAndre Jordan, and even Marcin Gortat. Capela filled that role and more in Game one.
For the Wolves to even put up the facade of being relevant in this series, it will start with Karl-Anthony Towns. Eight points will never cut it even if he is surrounded by overachievers; the Rockets are too good and the 3s are coming. But it is Towns’s defense and specifically defensive rebounding that is another impactful woe that needs mending.
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