After Wednesday night’s win over Denver, Timberwolves fans were elated, and rightfully so.
A playoff berth — obtained in the last game of the regular season, no less — is an impressive feat for a slew of reasons. Adding on the franchise’s history makes hyperbolic celebration beyond understandable.
But on Friday’s practice at Mayo Clinic Square in Minneapolis, it was impossible to tell such a feat had happened at all.
“We’ve got to be ready,” Karl-Anthony Towns said Friday, his mind already set on Sunday’s Game 1 matchup with the Houston Rockets. ”
The No 8-seeded Timberwolves begin their first-round series with the Rockets on the road on Sunday, and the players have already put the past behind them. Exciting as it might have been, the Wolves know their work isn’t done.
“The guys understand how important the concentration is,” Tom Thibodeau said at Friday’s practice. “Hopefully we’ve been building the right habits. We have to study Houston; we have to know them well. We have to be ready to go.”
The good news, as Thibodeau and several players mentioned, is the way the last month ended up shaking out. They fell from the third slot to eighth, but their final game featured a playoff-like environment. In many ways, its implications matched that of a Game 7 playoff game.
“Wednesday’s game was a dogfight. Some people don’t understand, we really pushed our limits physically and mentally,” Taj Gibson said.
Their odds against the title-contending Rockets are low, and history isn’t on their side — they lost to Houston all four times they faced them this year, three times by 18 points and once by nine.
All four of those games featured a consistent set of tactics from Houston’s end — beat the pick-and-roll to death.
The Rockets have two of the best pick-and-roll facilitators of the last 20 years in Chris Paul and James Harden, a bevy of shooters to kick it out to if the defense collapses — they led the league in 3-point makes and attempts — and a center ready and able to catch an alley-oop pass if the defense guards everyone else.
“It starts with the two point guards and the pressure they put on the rim,” Thibodeau said Thursday. “Capela is relentless in setting the high pick and rolling to the basket. And if he doesn’t get the switch, he’ll come back out and do it again and again. So you have to have a multiple-effort mentality.”
And as Thibodeau would go on to mention, the Rockets are most famous for their ability to knock down treys. They attempted 546 more deep balls than the second-place Brooklyn Nets.
Against the Wolves, this obviously happened a lot. Ryan Anderson is infamous in Minnesota after the pair of onslaughts he’s put on at the Target Center.
On Feb. 13, Anderson was credited as the main “Wolves killer” in a 126-108 Rockets win at the Target Center. He made six 3s — including four in the fourth quarter — and all of them were off pick-and-roll action in some form.[videopress ls6WPShi]
When the defense sticks to the 3-point shooter — which, statistically, is a good decision — it often leaves Capela wide open.
Capela had a career year, and even garnered some All-Star consideration. He missed some time, but the Rockets went 3-5 with him out of the lineup — which means they went 62-12 with him in.
He led the league in field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and was 12th in player efficiency rating. His standalone talent is worth a lot, and his defense alone is worth keeping him out there, but his play off the pick-and-roll is where he earns his stripes offensively.
His job on the pick-and-roll is often the easiest — he is there to throw down a dunk if the defense breaks down.[videopress 32hYbHYw]
But while Anderson, Capela, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and several others have benefited from the pick-and-roll this season, the only reason it works as well as it does is because of the ball handlers.
Paul has been a pick-and-roll maestro for years — his time with the Lob City Clippers, or even with Tyson Chandler and David West in New Orleans, is evidence of that.
Paul is an All-Star-caliber player and elite at running Mike D’Antoni’s play sets, but this is James Harden’s team. And while the Rockets have a (deserved) reputation for their outside shooting, they’re also third in the NBA at getting to the free throw line.
The likely MVP is the main reason for that. He led the league in free throw makes and attempts; and again, the pick-and-roll (or pop, when Ryan Anderson is the screener) was often the initial set.[videopress NAEyu741]
The Rockets are a 5/4 favorite to win the NBA championship — the second-best odds of any team in the postseason. They had the best offense in the NBA and a top-10 defense to round it out. They have depth, an overload of outside scoring threats and the likely MVP winner.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves have the lowest title odds to win the title — tied for the worst odds with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Had Butler stayed healthy, they might have moved up in the standings and upped their chances at a successful first round matchup. Had they won a couple games that were considered “bad losses”, the same thing might have occurred.
But they are where they are. In their first playoff series since 2004, they’ll go up against an elite team that exploits several of their weaknesses. If they want to compete, things will have to go right that simply haven’t in their four regular season matchups.
It will start with defending Houston’s pick-and-roll, but it will end with execution on both ends. It won’t be easy, but the playoffs never are.
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