As we often do before a playoff series, we sat down with the opposition to ask some questions about the upcoming matchup. This time, it’s our good colleagues over at Canis Hoopus, and I got the chance to chat with writer Charlie Johnson about what we can expect from the Minnesota Timberwolves in their first-round series with the Houston Rockets. I also gave my thoughts to his questions. Here’s the results of our discussion:
Darren Yuvan (DY): With the Rockets winning all four games against Minnesota during the regular season, what type of adjustments do the Wolves need to make in order for this to be a competitive series?
Charlie Johnson (CJ): The Rockets have been Minnesota’s kryptonite this year. The Wolves were able to beat the Warriors, whoop the Cavaliers and even take down the Raptors without Jimmy Butler. They were one of six teams in the NBA with a winning record versus opponents above .500, and with Butler that mark was even more impressive (21-13). But against the Rockets, the best they could do was one, Derrick Rose-led late game charge. There are a number of things they’ll need to adjust if they plan to flip the script.
On offense, the Wolves compensate for a glaring lack of outside shooting by winning the free throw battle, creating excess turnovers and being elite in one-on-one situations. The problem is, the Rockets are good at taking those things away: they’re one of two teams with a better differential at the charity stripe than the Wolves and their defense is designed to lure opponents into isolation opportunities. The Wolves will need to utilize their knack for creating turnovers, avoid sending the Rockets to the line and play within a game plan that doesn’t rely solely on post-ups.
On defense, there are two things that I’m focused on. The first – and this is probably the key to the series – is pick-and-roll coverage. The reason the Rockets scored 123 points per game against the Wolves this year was Minnesota’s inability to stop James Harden and Chris Paul in that play type. If Tom Thibodeau can’t add a wrinkle that slows them to a respectable level of production, the games will be over before they start. In my mind, that wrinkle should involve some level of switching.
The second key to any defensive adjustments the Wolves will employ is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins decided about two months ago that he’d like to be a good defender. Whereas Karl Anthony Towns’ improvements on that end have been slow and sporadic, Wiggins’ have been by leaps and bounds. All of a sudden he’s fiercely containing opponents on the perimeter, identifying rotations, chasing in transition and altering shots. If his development can sustain and be more consistent in this series, Butler’s return could keep the Rockets’ hands full on the wing.
DY: It’s really difficult to slow down both Chris Paul and James Harden simultaneously. It’s the entire reason the Rockets went out and got CP3 in the offseason. But if you had to pick shutting down one of them in order to give Minnesota the best chance of victory, on which one should the Wolves focus their defensive efforts and why?
CJ: Fundamentally, I don’t think the Wolves’ roster is versatile enough defensively to key in on one of those players. That’s compounded by the fact that the two guards the Rockets start are, well, phenomenal. Instead, if I were Thibodeau I would tilt my defense toward limiting both of their drive and kick opportunities by switching off of picks.
In Thibs’ old-school defense, switching is generally frowned upon. You’d normally see guys fight over screen after screen while help is drawn away from the Rockets’ capable shooters. Against such a combination of playmaking and range, though, this seems to be a faulty strategy. If the Wolves operate the same way they did during the regular season, then Houston, we have a problem. But if they focus on limiting catch and shoot three’s, they may be able to close the gap.
No matter what, they have to be physical. They should blitz and bully Harden every chance they get.
DY: Jimmy Butler missed one of the games in the regular season series and part of another. How important is he to Minnesota’s individual matchups against the Rockets and will a healthy Butler make a difference in the series?
CJ: Butler will make a major difference in the way the Wolves match-up against the Rockets, but he won’t be completely healthy.
When Butler is sidelined, the Wolves start stretch-forward Nemanja Bjelica at the three and shift Wiggins to shooting guard. On defense, Bjelica’s inability to contain guards and wings adds even more one-dimensional play to their lineup, which is a major problem against the Rockets. Plus, at his best, Butler is one of a handful of players that gives his team a shot at slowing Harden. We’re hoping that he’s healthier than he looked against the Nuggets.
DY: Who is the single most important player for the Wolves this series? If they are to upset the Rockets, who is the one player who must be at his best?
CJ: Well, I, um, ah. It’s hard to ask David to pick just one stone to throw at Goliath, right? Didn’t he use five?
If the Wolves were to upset the Rockets and execute one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history, you’d have to see every single player at their best. Towns and Butler are the all-stars, but Butler’s questionable health and the Rockets’ strategy of letting Towns take his shots lead me to believe that the x-factor would come from elsewhere.
Above all, Taj Gibson must be good to go after playing through an injured neck to get the Wolves to the playoffs. Gibson is the glue of this team; he’s been every bit as important in changing the Wolves’ culture as Butler. But the other player that I can see being a difference maker is Jeff Teague. The Wolves are 11-4 when Teague scores 20 or more points and 13-4 when he racks up 10 or more assists. Some of that is arbitrary, but it provides a peak into what it means for the team when he gets to his spots on the floor.
DY: What is your prediction for the series?
CJ: There are plenty of reasons to predict a series that is less than competitive, but if Gibson is healthy I think the Wolves will surprise you to an extent. With five rotation players that have enjoyed more than 38 playoff appearances (Butler, Gibson, Teague, Jamal Crawford and Derrick Rose), this is a group well suited to accompany Towns and Wiggins to their first dance. They’re a unique combination of talent, youth and experience. That said, the Rockets are the league’s most dangerous team and the worst matchup the Wolves could have drawn. I usually don’t do predictions, but because it’s our first post-season appearance in 14 years, I will.
I think the Rockets win 4-1, but the Wolves keep those losses much closer than the ones we’ve seen this season. In the end, the Wolves are unable to stop the Rockets’ pick-and-roll in the clutch.
Thanks again to Charlie Johnson and the rest of the crew over at Canis Hoopus. It was a pleasure to work with them, and don’t forget to head over there to check out my answers to Charlie’s questions on the Rockets.