The NBA playoffs are finally here. After a tumultuous regular season defined by injuries and shake-ups, we are bringing you some playoff previews before the first round begins.
An eight seed has upset a one seed in the first round only five times in the history of the NBA. The Timberwolves are hoping to make it six after breaking their 14-year playoff drought. The Rockets, however, are looking to continue their winning ways as they have their eyes on a title.
Here is a summary of the first round series between the No. 1 seed and the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
Regular Season Summary
The Rockets finished the 2017-18 season with the best record in the league, at 65-17.
Their offense was nothing short of prolific as they made their way to clinching the West’s top seed. Houston was first in 3-pointers (both attempted and made), second in points and second in free throws made per game, despite their jump shooting ways.
James Harden, the probable NBA MVP, played out of his mind this season. He collected 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. Not to mention he owns all of these stats despite missing 10 regular season games due to knee soreness. The assists are especially surprising because of the addition of Chris Paul, who is one of the premiere passers in the NBA.
Paul and Harden proved any doubters that this combination could not work laughably wrong. Worried that two ball-dominate guards could not operate in the same system, NBA pundits thought the experiment would go horribly wrong, as neither would be able to get enough shots to be productive.
Paul got his, however. He averaged 18.6 points, 7.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game, all while missing 24 games due to a multitude of injuries. The third piece of this puzzle, Clint Capela, averaged a double-double. Eric Gordon, Gerald Green and Trevor Ariza also averaged over 10 points per game in support of the Rockets’ big three.
Houston’s defense was no slouch either. The Rockets rank sixth in defensive rating, with a fifth place finish in steals. They also were in the top half of the league in blocks, opponents’ points off turnovers and opponents’ second chance points.
Being the No. 1 with the best record in the NBA does not lend itself to having many exploitable weaknesses. The most glaring issue, though, is Houston’s reluctancy to share the ball.
The Rockets are 26th in assists, which is decidedly bad. Obviously, it has not hurt them too much, as most every player on the floor can score at will. But the playoffs will test a team’s weaknesses in a way the regular season cannot. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but Houston’s main hurdle between them and a trip to the NBA Finals is Golden State, a team that shares the ball more than any other in the league.
Overall, coach Mike D’Antoni’s group has overachieved and then some. The main pieces are all healthy at the right time, and the stage is set for the Rockets to shake the woes that follow them into every NBA playoffs.
Minnesota, as previously stated, has broken their 14-year long drought, landing the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs. They had to do so by winning an instant classic, win-or-go-home overtime game against the Denver Nuggets. It is only fitting that in a playoff race as wild as the West’s was this year that the last game of the season would decide the eighth seed.
But the Timberwolves’ season was pretty wild before that last game.
Sitting as high as the fourth seed at the All-Star break, the wheels seemingly came off of Minnesota’s wagon as the rest of the Western Conference gained steam. As they started losing, the rest of the West had no problem racking up their wins and climbing up the standings.
The biggest harbinger of the Timberwolves’ disappointing second half was the loss of Jimmy Butler to a meniscus tear. Butler, at the time of his injury, was averaging the most minutes of any player in the entire league. He ended the season with an average of 36.7 minutes per game.
The problem for Minnesota was that with those minutes, came production. Butler scored 22.2 points per game on the season, almost six points above his career average. He was also the team leader on the defensive side of the court. As a result, the Timberwolves suffered on both ends of the floor when he was not playing.
Karl-Anthony Towns continued to be the brightest spot on the roster. He averaged a double-double at 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game. Towns continues to get better defensively, although that is not really saying much as of now. He also posted an impressive 54.5 field goal percentage while shooting 42.1 percent from three.
Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson contributed well, despite their age, and were continuously counted on as huge pieces of the team. The rest of the roster, though, did not impress. Gorgui Dieng and Andrew Wiggins’ numbers were down from their career averages, and Jeff Teague was good while he was healthy, but was forced to take a backseat to Butler and Towns.
Finishing seventh in offensive rebounds per game and second in free throw percentage, the Timberwolves proved tough, even when overmatched by more complete teams. They also did not turn the ball over much, at just 12.5 times per game, which was also second-best in the league.
The defense was lackluster at best in Minneapolis. The team’s defensive rating landed them in the bottom 10 at 23rd overall. Cycling through the defensive statistics and seeing where the team finished in each paints a picture of an inconsistent defense. This is exceptionally rare for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau.
More pressing than any other issue that plagued the team throughout the season, though, was the awful bench play.
Minnesota finished dead last in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. They also were in the bottom six in assists, steals and offensive rebounds. This is incredibly bad. The Timberwolves’ starters played more than any other group in the NBA, and it is easy to see why.
Even so, the drought is over, and the Wolves have been playing playoff-type basketball for the entire month of April. They may be tired, but they are ready to give Minnesota fans something to cheer about.
Breakdown and Prediction
Jimmy Butler will have his hands full guarding James Harden, but he may be one of the only defenders in the league who can do so efficiently. Clearly, no one is taking Harden out of a game completely, but he faces one of his toughest matchups here in the first round. This will be the biggest thing to watch as the series progresses.
Houston’s main goal should be to stop Karl-Anthony Towns from putting up the points. It would be a smart bet to take that the Wolves will run their offense through him, playing an inside-out game. Clint Capela will not be able to match his production, with Harden and Chris Paul taking the bulk of the shots. Defending Towns will be their only option in the paint.
Paul versus Jeff Teague is interesting, as both have different preferred scoring methods. Paul favors the mid-range game, while Teague likes to slash to the hoop. The points here should be a wash, but the edge still goes to Paul because of his incredible passing ability.
Wing play favors Houston heavily. Almost everyone on the roster can shoot from distance, and Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Joe Johnson and more will be waiting to pull up. The bench matchup is also a no-brainer. Considering that the Timberwolves have far and away the least productive bench in the NBA, all Houston’s players have to do is show up for the game and they already have the Timberwolves’ bench beaten.
The Houston Rockets are a buzz saw, and the Timberwolves, regardless of how great their story is, are on the conveyor belt headed towards it.
Even if they were not one of the best NBA offenses ever, or slacked on the defensive end of the floor, the Timberwolves are an incomplete team. Thibodeau has always ridden his starters harder than any other coach in the league, but it is a different story when he has no choice but to.
Towns, Butler and the momentum that Minnesota has going into this series will be enough to carry them to one victory. The Rockets, however, seem like an unstoppable force, and it is going to take more than five players to beat them.
In the end, the Wolves’ drought is over, and that is something to celebrate. This team is probably trending upwards, too, if they can pull in some free agents. But the Rockets have their eyes on the prize, and this one should be over shortly.
Rockets in five
Featured image by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports
“From Our Haus to Yours“