On Monday, the Minnesota Timberwolves faced the Houston Rockets in Game 4 of their playoff series. After a near-record breaking 50-point third quarter, the Rockets won 119-100. They lead the series 3-1.
During the first half, the Timberwolves played decent basketball. They held James Harden to just 4-of-14 shooting, but were unable to really capitalize on his many misses. Still, Minnesota trailed by just one point heading into halftime.
Part of the reason the Wolves were able to hold their own early on was the excellent performance of Derrick Rose. He finished with 17 points on 7 of 11 shooting, including two 3-point makes.
On his drives to the rim, he showed flashes of the explosiveness and finishing ability that characterized his MVP season. Rose also had six rebounds and four assists in the contest. He was plus-six for the game, which is pretty impressive considering he played 32 minutes in a blow-out.
In fact, outside of that unfortunate third quarter, the entire Wolves team played pretty well. If we subtract each team’s points in the third quarter from the final score, Minnesota would win by 11 points.
This should give Timberwolves fans some hope. In previous seasons, this team would have given up after such a terrible quarter. In this game, however, Minnesota kept fighting until the bitter end. They actually managed to outscore Houston 31-19 in the fourth quarter.
During this game, the Rockets had just six turnovers. The Wolves, on the other hand, had 16. This was due to a carelessness with the ball that is uncharacteristic of Minnesota. This likely has to do with Houston playing up to their capability in this game for the first time during this series.
The Rockets’ success was due mostly to Chris Paul and Harden’s excellent performances. Paul had 25 points, six assists, six rebounds, and five steals. Harden had 36 points, 22 of which he scored during that nightmarish third quarter.
James Harden on Timberwolves fans chanting Harden sucks: "I like to hear stuff like that…They really don't mean it. They just got to say it. Hopefully it makes them feel good." #Rockets @JHarden13 pic.twitter.com/cGAomAPBZp— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) April 24, 2018
He also had four rebounds, three assists, four steals, and a block.
For reference, the entire Timberwolves team had a total of four steals.
While the Rockets’ stars were brilliant, Minnesota’s best players continued their disappearing act.
The worst, though, was Jeff Teague. In 28 minutes, he had two points on 1 of 7 shooting. Teague amassed three turnovers and was a minus-28. This is a far cry from his position as a catalyst for victory during Game 3.
The entire third quarter was incredibly ugly. Only one team in the history of the NBA playoffs has ever scored more in one quarter than the Rockets did on Monday.
Surprisingly enough, the Wolves actually shot a higher percentage than Houston in this game. In addition, the Rockets shot less than one percent better on 3-point shots.
The Rockets didn’t win because they suddenly turned into flamethrowers and made an improbable number of shots. By the same token, the Wolves didn’t lose because their shots weren’t falling.
Houston won because they shot the ball eight more times and took 22 more 3-pointers than Minnesota.
Part of this was due to the fact that the Rockets committed 10 fewer turnovers than the Wolves.
However, this inability to get enough shots off has been plaguing the Timberwolves all series long. They simply do not shoot a high enough volume, especially on 3-pointers, to be competitive with the top tier teams in this league.
When Minnesota is on offense, there is virtually no off-ball movement. Cutting or rolling is rare, which makes passing and finding open looks difficult. This leads to lots of iso-ball, deflected passes, and shot clock violations.
Constantly, a Wolves player will drive in while four players stand on the perimeter, static and often wide open. When heading to the basket, the majority of the players on this team act as though wearing blinders. Since trading away Ricky Rubio, Minnesota’s best facilitator has been Tyus Jones. Unfortunately, Jones has hardly played in this series.
Keys to victory in Game 5
1. Avoid turnovers
The number of turnovers the Wolves had in Game 4 set them up for failure. It not only gave the Rockets more scoring opportunities but also wrecked Minnesota’s chance at developing some flow in their offense. In order to do this, the Wolves need to be focused while handling the ball and careful with their passes. Off-ball movement would help cut down turnovers by giving the ball handler more open players to pass to.
2. Keep taking shots
Houston and Minnesota have shot very similar percentages on both three-pointers and field goals in general. In order to keep up with the Rockets’ scoring, the Wolves need to shoot a higher volume of shots. This means reducing the number of turnovers and increasing the creativity of the offense. Even if the shots are a bit forced or aren’t falling, Minnesota cannot be scared of shooting if they are to pull out a win in Game 5
Even if everything goes right for the Wolves, it’s going to be tough to beat this Rockets team. They have home court advantage and are finally playing at full strength. In Game 4, Houston’s greater experience and more cohesive offensive strategy were put on full display. If the Rockets are firing on all cylinders, it’s almost impossible for the Timberwolves to beat them. In order to win, they are going to need to shoot improbably well, as they did in Game 3, or hope Houston misses.
Game 5 will be in Houston at 8:30 p.m. CT on Wednesday.