Two-hundred and twenty-three days have passed since the Houston Rockets last set foot at Target Center. James Harden and crew were last in town on April 23 delivering a 50-point third quarter gut punch to the Jimmy Butler-led Minnesota Timberwolves.
It was a classic Houston thwarting that all but ended the fanfare that had surrounded Minnesota’s first playoff appearance in over 5,000 days.
When the Rockets returned Monday night, naturally, it was easy to think back to that series. A battle of two isolation-thirsty teams who had ridden their top offensive weapons into becoming top-four offenses during the regular season that preceded the matchup.
Houston was a team propelled by the most prolific isolation duo in NBA history. Harden scored a ridiculous 1.22 points per possession on 10 isolations per game (most in the league) as Chris Paul contributed 5.1 isos per night (fourth-most in the league) to the tune of 1.10 points per possession. The rest of the Houston attack was basically just spot-up 3-point shooting that made the Rockets the first team to ever attempt the majority (50.2 percent) of their field goal attempts beyond the arc.
Minnesota was somehow a team of less offensive diversification.
Sure, they had Karl-Anthony Towns who could score from every level of the floor, but he was not the mainstay of 2017-18 Wolves diet. At 22.9 percent, Towns trailed Butler (24.9 percent), Jamal Crawford (23.7 percent) and Andrew Wiggins (23.4 percent) in usage rate. Jeff Teague wasn’t far behind at 20.6 percent. The Minnesota offense was thus defined by the bludgeonings of Butler, Crawford, Wiggins and Teague isolations, and Towns was their tertiary weapon. This led the Wolves product into being one that was 27th in the league in ball movement, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and was 30th in player movement. From distance, the Wolves were the antithesis of the Rockets’ 3-point barrage; only 26 percent of Minnesota’s field goal attempts were from beyond the arc — the lowest rate in the league.
Essentially, Minnesota entered the playoff series with the plan of attempting to best Houston at their own game, without tapping into its most efficient element. It was beyond an uphill battle and one that they unsurprisingly lost.
New Year, New Team, Different Result
The nature of the playoff defeat is what made Robert Covington’s commentary in the locker room after the Wolves Monday night victory over the Rockets all the more refreshing.
“That was last year,” said Covington. “All that stuff is in the past, it’s a whole new season. A different team, a different identity.”
Right away, it became clear the Wolves were doing things differently in this matchup against the Rockets. In the playoffs, Tom Thibodeau railed that Towns was doing what “he had to do” in “trusting the pass.” Houston brought double teams KAT’s way consistently in that series, and Thibodeau was fine with him baiting them into the double and kicking out. This greatly slowed Towns down, particularly in first quarters where he only attempted 14 total field-goal attempts (2.8 per game).
On Monday, Towns shot eight times in the first period and 24 times by night’s end.
There was an insistence by everyone on the team to feed Towns who was quick to his move, getting his shot off before the double arrived.
The other great differentiator was the Wolves’ 3-point shooting Monday. In four regular-season matchups against the Rockets last season, Houston made 69 shots from beyond the arc where the Wolves made 34. Monday, Minnesota matched Houston’s 11 made 3s.
Better yet, the 3s were coming from the bench. Dario Saric hit two critical shots from deep in the third quarter that perpetuated Minnesota’s eventual second-half dismantling. A season ago, the Wolves’ bench net-rating was 22nd in the league. Since the Butler trade, the revamped Wolves bench is crushing opponents with the third-best bench net-rating in the league over that time period.
And they’re doing it with defense. The four bench pieces (Saric, Tyus Jones, Gorgui Dieng, Derrick Rose) alongside Covington, who now flanks that group in place of Butler, has defensively transformed. Last season, the Wolves bench was 30th in defensive rating.
Since the trade, they are seventh.
Covington has proven to be a critical elixir here, and he was against Harden on Monday. Last season Butler was Harden’s primary defender on 94 possessions, per NBA.com Wiggins handled Harden the second-most, 56 possessions.
Covington seems to revel in the on-ball challenge more than his predecessor who seemed to prefer the “free safety” role on the defensive end. As more of a committed point-of-attack defender, and more defensively skilled than Wiggins, Covington seems to unlock something in his four surrounding teammates that Butler did not.
In four victories against the Wolves last season, a season ago, Houston averaged a paltry 10.3 turnovers per 100 possessions. It was the fewest turnovers the Rockets averaged against any opponent, per NBA.com. On Monday, both Harden and Paul turned the ball over five times on the way to totaling 20 team turnovers — the second-most they’ve had all season.
Allowing offensive rebounds was also an Achilles heel of the Wolves a season ago. They were 24th in the NBA in opponent’s offensive rebounding rate. In turn, Clint Capela and the Houston offense feasted on the offensive glass against the Wolves. In the four regular season matches, the Rockets tallied a 26.4 offensive rebound rate — their best against any opponent.
On Monday, the Rockets pulled in seven total offensive rebounds (a 16.6 percent rate).
Covington helps here too. The Butler-led Wolves guards were more prone to leak out on opponent’s misses. Covington is not only a physically imposing rebounder for his position but he also seems to recognize the importance of finding his man for a box out and crashing.
While it seems crazy to think that Wolves could have already adopted a brand new identity in the three weeks that have followed the Butler trade, the proof is in the pudding. A season ago, it was a great victory to make the playoffs but can with the stale taste of a seemingly impossible matchup. Now, this group feels as if it could hold its own against Houston in a seven-game series. They’re at least evolving enough to give themselves a chance if the playoffs are in the cards again this season, without Butler.