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Rockets vs. Timberwolves series preview: How sweep it is?

Houston went 4-0 against Minnesota in the regular season and will try to do it again in the playoffs.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Houston Rockets lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves was Jan. 11, 2017. This is the first time the Wolves franchise has made the playoffs in 13 years. The Rockets have an ideal matchup to ensure a quick path to the second round of the Western Conference.

Minnesota is talented and gritty as hell, and Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford have all been in playoff battles. So has Tom Thibodeau, and he’s won most of his battles as both a head coach and an assistant. They are a formidable foe. They just happen to match up terribly with Houston.

The Rockets annihilated the NBA’s all-time record for three-pointers this season. The Wolves are dead last in three-point makes and attempts in the league. The Rockets have one of NBA history’s greatest offensive machine. The 2018 Minnesota Timberwolves have the 27th-ranked defense in the league, according to Basketball-Reference, giving up 111.1 points per 100 possessions.

But don’t take my word for it! Here’s Canis Hoopus writer Eric in Madison after the Wolves’ third loss to the Rockets in February:

The truth is, with or without Butler, the Wolves have no answers for this Rockets team. Of course, given they have the best record in the NBA, not many teams do, but the Wolves have been unceremoniously brushed aside in all three meetings. It’s a bad match up for them. A team that pushes with intent and quality, is relentless from the arc, and has enough rim protection and rebounding to make things difficult in the paint is a formula that exposes the Wolves weaknesses and limits their strengths.

The Rockets went 4-0 against the Wolves this season, winning those games by 18, 18, 18 and 9 points. The last time the Rockets swept a playoff opponent, it was 1997. In the Moreyball era, they are seemingly always due an off night every few games.

Not this team. They rattled off the longest win streak in the NBA this season, months after going on the fourth-longest win streak of the season. They are capable of outplaying worthy opponents night after night.

That series in 1997? The Hakeem-Chuck-Clyde combination that was supposed to dethrone the Bulls until John F***ing Stockton happened swept the Minnesota Timberwolves in three games.

Prediction: Rockets in 4

Let’s break down the matchup:

Point guard: Chris Paul vs. Jeff Teague

Point God vs. Playoff Teague. If you haven’t watched too much early-round Eastern Conference playoffs the past few years, I wouldn’t blame you. But if you did, then you know the player you see flashes of during the regular season — quick, aggressive and surprisingly handsy on D — shows up all night in the playoffs. When he was running point for the 60-win Hawks, he averaged 16.8 points, 6.7 assists and 1.5 steals, all well above his career averages.

That’s all the airspace Teague will get in this space, or for the rest of the series. Ever since coming back from his hamstring injury, Chris Paul has looked fresh and locked in. He’ll probably make NBA All-Defense team this year, and deservedly so. Teague is not much bigger than he is, and they know each other well. Both are Wake Forest point guards, two members of a very small NBA fraternity.

CP3 finished the season with averages of 18.6 points, 7.9 assists and 1.7 steals. He shot 38 percent from deep on a career high 6.5 attempts per game. Most importantly, he played 31.8 minutes per game, the second-lowest amount in his career, and just 58 games. He’s exited more than one playoffs with an injury, and wasn’t fully healthy when the Rockets came back from 3-1 down against the Clippers in 2015.

And if you want to talk about elevated playoff performances, CP3 has averaged 21.4 points, 9.4 assists and 2.2 steals in 76 career playoff games. The Rockets acquired him for this moment, and he should be far more assertive — and share the floor with James Harden more — when it is called for and when the Rockets go through lulls.

The Point God wins. Advantage: Rockets

Shooting guard: James Harden vs. Jimmy Butler

Oh, this matchup. This is a tasty one. Last year, I’d be panicked about whether Butler could lock Harden down at Roberson-Kawhi levels. The answer is he probably can. But this is MVP James Harden, more efficient, better defensively, with more help than ever before. Even the best defenders in the world are not enough to stop the CP3-Harden combo, not on their own anyway.

Butler is brilliant, but he’s still playing on one of the league’s most porous defenses. If Thibodeau runs a heavy-switching scheme, like most teams have done against Houston, then Harden will be isolated on Karl-Anthony Towns a lot. When he’s not, he’ll run pick-and-rolls with Clint Capela, who Towns will be guarding, and pick on the defense that way. If he gets tired of picking on Towns, he’ll pick on Gibson, or Wiggins, or Nemanja Bjelica, or even Jamal Crawford for old time’s sake.

With the way the Rockets play, and they personnel they have, this is not Roberson mucking up an ugly first-round series against the Thunder or Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge sapping the life from Harden’s legs. This is the 65-win Houston Rockets, and one great defender is not enough.

Butler is a problem offensively, and would be a shoo-in All-NBA player if he hadn’t gotten hurt. He dropped 31 points in the Wolves’ playoff-clinching game. He lives for big moments, and will wind up being the one that makes Rockets fans feel the sickest.

But one man is not enough. Advantage: Rockets

Small forward: Trevor Ariza vs. Andrew Wiggins

The casual NBA fan would probably hand this category to Wiggins, assuming a former No. 1 pick who averages 17.7 points per game over a journeyman wing who scores 11.7 is an easy advantage.

Maybe so. On Wiggins’ best nights, he’s far more dangerous than Ariza will ever be. The Rockets have seen plenty of those nights. He’s shot 39 percent from three in his career against Houston. Maybe that player will show up in his first ever playoffs.

Far more likely is the 32-year-old vet, who is fresher for the playoffs than he’s ever been in Houston. He’s played 500 fewer minutes than any other year since he’s been in Houston. Considering how important his shooting is to this team — anytime he shoots well, the Rockets usually win — those legs will be crucial. He shot 37.7 percent in last year’s playoffs, better than he shot from behind the arc this year.

Ariza is light years ahead of Wiggins defensively, he’s got both a length and strength advantage, and, oh by the way, he’s started 73 playoff games, including every single one in the 2009 Lakers championship run. I’m not confident he will win this matchup, but it will swing on whoever can shoot better.

Advantage: Push

Power Forward: P.J. Tucker vs. Taj Gibson

In a traditional series with 4s guarding 4s, this would be a fun, ugly matchup to watch. These are two highly physical veterans, each with experience on conference finals squads, and each with an innate ability to make the right play, grab the key rebound, in the biggest moments.

But the Rockets don’t play traditional defense, and the likelihood these two guard each other for most of full possessions is very low. when the ball finds itself in Gibson’s hands with the shot clock winding down, the most likely Rocket who will find himself guarding Taj is James Harden. Tucker will be used to switch onto Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, against whom he will use his unique blend of quickness and strength to neutralize the two All-Stars as best he can.

Gibson is a workhorse who has a history of playing well in the playoffs. He’s not as spry as he once was, but he is a reliable player in the middle. If he plays more than 30 minutes per game in this series, however, it will likely be a Thibodeau mistake. Gibson doesn’t shoot threes — he made just 7 of his 35 attempts from deep this year — and Tucker does. In the Rockets’ lethal small lineups he should be played off the floor. Tucker is matchup-proof and is lethal from the corners.

Advantage: Rockets

Center: Clint Capela vs. Karl-Anthony Towns

Capela is one of the best young centers in the league, and he has feasted on Towns and Minnesota this year. But Towns might just be the real best young center in the league, depending on your opinion of Joel Embiid, and he gets buckets and rebounds in bunches.

The key to this matchup will be each’s impact on the defensive end. If Capela can stay with Towns and prevent him from getting open looks on the perimeter, he’ll win the matchup. Towns is a 42% three-point shooter this season, but he doesn’t like to take those shots contested. A hand up by Capela will force him to drive, where he’s (slightly) less efficient.

On defense, Towns will be put through the ringer on pick-and-rolls. He will find himself either on an island with regularity against Harden or CP3, or the back of his neck will get pounded on as Capela dunks lob after lob when Harden breaks down the Wolves’ pick-and-roll coverage. The Swiss Roll averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game against Minnesota, his highest scoring average against any Western Conference team this year.

Despite the favorable matchup, the Rockets will need to focus far more of their energy on stopping Towns than the Wolves will on stopping Capela. Although Clint is a superior defender, I have a sneaking suspicion that Towns will step up on that end more than the Rockets are used to seeing.

Advantage: Timberwolves

Bench: Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Ryan Anderson, Nene and Joe Johnson vs. Tyus Jones, Gorgui Dieng, Jamal Crawford, Nemanja Bjelica and Derrick Rose

Eric Gordon won Sixth Man of the Year last year, and has arguably been better this year. Ryan Anderson was a starter on a third-seeded Rockets team last year, Nene single-handedly won a playoff game last year and Gerald Green is an unrepentant gunner who can get his shot up anytime, anywhere.

The Timberwolves have a sneaky great backup point guard in Tyus Jones, a sneaky good backup forward/wing combo in Bjelica and not much else. This isn’t much of a contest.

The most interesting storyline to follow here will be how much of his bench Mike D’Antoni uses. Last year, the Rockets essentially went seven deep after losing Nene, the result of the Rockets coach not trusting more than half of his roster. That’s no longer the case, but guys like Paul, Harden and Capela should all play more of games than they did in the regular season. With the way the last month of the season shook out, I’d actually expect Gerald Green to get minutes over Joe Johnson, with Ryan Anderson, if healthy, functioning more as a backup center. We shall see.

Advantage: Rockets

Coaching: Mike D’Antoni vs. Tom Thibodeau

If this were evaluating who is the best coach to maximize a roster and build a franchise and system, this would be no contest with D’Antoni, the reigning Coach of the Year, as the winner. But we are talking about a seven-game playoff series, and D’Antoni has yet to prove he’s as good at coaching in that situation as he is coaching an 82-game season.

Thibodeau’s issues with relying on known entities — Derrick Rose is somehow on this team, alongside his former teammates Gibson and Butler — overtaxing his starters and wearing thin on his players don’t have nearly the same negative impact now as they do in a macro-look at how he has stewarded the franchise he has been charged with.

It’s been a while since Thibs has coached a playoff series, but his Bulls teams were ferociously tough outs in the East even after Rose and several other rotation pieces got hurt. D’Antoni is great, but when it comes to mid-series adjustments and scouting/preparation, I’ll give Thibs the edge.

Advantage: Timberwolves