Playoff Preview: Houston vs. Minnesota

1. Houston Rockets

Record: 65-17

Offense: No. 2

Defense: No. 6

Head Coach: Mike D’Antoni (32-38 playoff record)

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2017-18 SUPERGLOOO Leaders (season total in parentheses): James Harden 36.35 (1931.85); Chris Paul 32.95 (1267.89); Clint Capela 29.68 (1257.48); Eric Gordon 23.63 (1060.17).

Prolific Playoff Performers (SUPERGLOOO career total in parentheses): Chris Paul 27.05 SUPERGLOOO (1626.38); James Harden 25.58 (1613.89); Joe Johnson 12.98 (1138.02); Trevor Ariza 12.38 (698.93); Nene 13.55 (576.16).

The 5,000 Minute Rule: James Harden 19,114 minutes with Rockets; Trevor Ariza 14,706; Clint Capela 5600.

G James Harden 35.5 30.6 5.4 8.7 .620 true shooting %
F Trevor Ariza 33.9 11.8 4.4 1.6 1.5 steals per game
G Chris Paul 31.9 18.6 5.4 7.9 1.7 steals per game
C Clint Capela 27.6 13.9 10.8 0.9 1.9 blocks per game
F Ryan Anderson 26.1 9.3 5.0 0.9 39% 3-pointers

Key: MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; SUPERGLOOO metric derived from Player Efficiency Rating, along with On and On-Off plus-minus ratings; * denotes injured player may miss playoff games.

 G Eric Gordon  31.2  18.0  2.5  2,2  3.2 3-pointers per game
 F P.J. Tucker  27.8  6.1  5.6  0.9  1.0 steals per game
 F Gerald Green  22.7  12.1  3.2  0.6  2.7 3-pointers per game
 F Joe Johnson  21.9  6.8  3.1  1.5  .493 2-point %
 C Nene  14.6  6.5  3.4  0.9  .574 2-point %
 C Tarik Black  10.5  3.5  3.2  0.3  0.6 blocks per game
 F Luc Mbah a Moute*  25.6  7.5  3.0  0.9  1.2 steals per game

Minnesota Timberwolves

Record: 47-35

Offense: No. 4

Defense: No. 23

Head Coach: Tom Thibodeau (23-28 playoff record)

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2017-18 SUPERGLOOO Leaders (season total in parentheses): Karl-Anthony Towns 31.45 (1911.90); Jimmy Butler 31.48 (1419.00); Taj Gibson 19.95 (1132.99); Andrew Wiggins 15.85 (983.69); Jeff Teague 18.08 (870.24).

Prolific Playoff Performers (career total in parentheses): Derrick Rose 21.05 (730.17); Jeff Teague 13.85 (547.99).

The 5,000 Minute Rule: Andrew Wiggins 11,853 minutes with Timberwolves; Gorgui Dieng 9221; Karl-Anthony Towns 8564.

 G Jimmy Butler  36.7  22.2  5.3  4.9  2.0 steals per game
 F Andrew Wiggins  36.3  17.7  4.4  2.0  1.1 steals per game
 C Karl-Anthony Towns  35.6  21.3  12.3  2.4  .646 true shooting %
 F Taj Gibson  33.2  12.2  7.1  1.2  .610 true shooting %
 G Jeff Teague  33.0  14.2  3.0  7.0  1.5 steals per game

Key: MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; SUPERGLOOO metric derived from Player Efficiency Rating, along with On and On-Off plus-minus ratings; * denotes injured player may miss playoff games.

 G Jamal Crawford   20.7  10.3  1.2  2.3  .903 free throw %
 F Nemanja Bjelica   20.5  6.8  4.1  1.3  .415 3-point %
 G Tyus Jones  17.9  5.1  1.6  2.8  1.2 steals per game
 C Gorgui Dieng  16.9  5.9  4.6  0.9  0.5 blocks per game
 G Derrick Rose*  16.8  8.4  1.4  1.5  .870 free throw %


Little did the Rockets know when they were fighting tooth and nail for the No. 1 seed that they would land the toughest No. 8 seed in decades when they matched up with 47-35 Minnesota. It’s bad enough to face a 47-win club in your first-round matchup, but such is life in the wild, wild West. But when you also consider the Timberwolves only finished eighth because their All-Star Jimmy Butler missed 23 games due to injury, well, it is only then that you realize sometimes your blessing comes with a curse.

Such is the case with Houston’s Minnesota matchup, a fact amplified all the more by our projection that the T-Wolves are the third best team in the West at the moment, trailing only Houston and Golden State in our playoff metrics. Towns finished third in our MVP balloting and Butler would have finished top 5 had he not got hurt (both players have similar SUPERGLOOO scores after all: Towns, 31.45; Butler, 31.48). If you factor out Minnesota’s 10-13 record in games played sans Butler, then the T-Wolves would have finished with a .627 winning percentage, good for 51.4 wins and a No. 3 seed out West. See what I mean? They are really good.

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Mike D’Antoni has to seriously game plan for a team that still does not know how to play defense for a coach who has built his entire reputation based on D. We’ve seen the T-Wolves string along good moments of defense—remember Taj Gibson’s classic shutdowns of Nikola Jokic in playoff-clinching Game 82? But until Andrew Wiggins learns to properly defend, Tibs is going to have trouble getting this young, learning squadron to the next level. Thankfully, Thibodeau has recruited some of his former Bulls who may make the growing pains easier, with Butler, Gibson and new recruit Derrick Rose all playing roles as mentors off the court and leaders on the court. Still, the Timberwolves lack the familiarity it will take to become a championship contender, but that’s not to say they cannot knock off a championship contender on their way up the mountain.

Houston did not look vulnerable all season long. However, the recent injury to key defender Luc Mbah a Moute may be more harmful than most expect. Houston’s defensive specialist who could guard anyone in the League, from wing to center, will be out until May with a dislocated right shoulder. The Rockets still have good perimeter defenders like Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker to throw at Butler, but Mbah a Moute’s loss may mean Andrew Wiggins gets some free roaming time away from the other shutdown defenders when those Rockets forwards inevitably need rest from chasing. That said, look for Houston wing Gerald Green to get the extra Mbah a Moute minutes, which should mean more offense, less defense for the now well-balanced Rockets squad.

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This is still the James Harden and Chris Paul Show on Houston’s end, and Minnesota will look to counter by going big with its center Karl-Anthony Towns. D’Antoni believes he has the defenders to match up with KAT (Clint Capela, Nene and Tarik Black), while Minnesota has a plethora of guards and wings to counter the Rockets dynamic duo. With Timberwolves Butler, Jeff Teague, Tyus Jones and Rose, Tibs has defenders that will make their opponents work hard on both ends of the court. Despite the offensive talent on both sides, these are both teams that like to slow down the pace because both coaches know the importance of defense and absolutely hate to give away frivolous baskets. That’s not to say Houston and Minnesota won’t go on runs, because both teams have streaky shooters off the bench that fuel that fervor (2016-17 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon of Houston and 2015-16 Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford of Minnesota). Gordon’s presence is key here. At any given moment at all times of the game, the Rockets can now field a guard lineup led by either Harden and Paul, Harden and Gordon, or Paul and Gordon—48 minutes a night. How can anyone compete with that? No matter how good a defensive coach your coach may be.