Rockets 114, Timberwolves 112: Polar Opposites

Houston came into Target Center on Friday night sporting a 14-4 record, second in the West. Minnesota came in at 4-13, and dead last in the conference. When missing all three of their injured starters (Beverley, Howard and Terrence Jones), the Rockets are 5-2. When missing all three of their own injured starters (Rubio, Martin and Pekovic), the Wolves are 1-7. Houston has the second best defense in the NBA (by defensive rating); the Wolves have the third worst. The Rockets take the fewest midrange shots in the NBA; the Wolves take the third most. Houston takes the most threes in the NBA; Minnesota takes the 2nd fewest. The Rockets’ coach, Kevin McHale, was a three-time NBA Champion and seven-time All Star who transitioned seamlessly to post-playing career front office and coaching positions. The Wolves’ coach, Flip Saunders, never played in the NBA and spent 15 years working his way up through collegiate and CBA gigs before finally getting his first opportunity to coach at the game’s highest level.

Despite all the differences between the two teams, there they were, tied at 105 with 15 seconds to go in regulation and a chance for the Wolves to win, and tied again at 112 with 15 seconds to go in overtime and a chance for the Rockets to win. Most of the polar opposites mentioned above manifested themselves throughout the game – for example, Houston hoisted 32 threes, and Minnesota put up 12. In fact, here’s the full chart, the Rockets in red and the Wolves in blue:

WolvesRocketsShotChart

Minnesota took 97 shots, Houston took 78. The Rockets committed 23 turnovers, the Wolves committed just 14. Minnesota outscored Houston in the paint (66 to 40), on second chance points (16 to 7) fueled by offensive rebounds (a 14 to 7 edge), and in transition (23 to 15). The biggest difference, however, came from beyond the arc: 36 points on 12 threes for Houston, 9 points on 3 threes for Minnesota.

Steve McPherson turned to me postgame when I pointed all this out and said, “You just have to work so much harder to score when you don’t shoot threes,” and he’s right. A glance at the shot chart and all the numbers above paints a pretty stark picture of the differences between the two teams. This isn’t necessarily an indictment on Flip, because the available personnel simply isn’t conducive to a ton of perimeter shooting. But it’s telling that the Wolves dominated in so many of the traditional categories and the game was still close.

Anyway, enough numbers – let’s take a look at the two most critical plays of the game, the missed Chase Budinger jump shot at the end of regulation and the Nick Johnson (of all people) layup that won the game for Houston in overtime. Zach Lavine factored in heavily to both.

First, the missed Budinger jumper:

Flip Saunders was asked after the game if this was the shot he wanted on that play, and he revealed that it was actually designed for Thad. “That’s a play we’ve run, and Chase scored on it at the end of the half,” Flip said. “Thad was pretty much wide open. Young players, they’ll learn. Instead of locking into one option… that was the option (going to Budinger) LaVine locked into.”

A Thad jumper from the top of the key might’ve been a slightly better shot than Chase coming off the curl, but it’s hard to fault the rookie too much for going back to a play that worked earlier in the game.

LaVine’s defense on Johnson’s game winner also provided a learning opportunity for the 19-year-old. While he contested the shot without fouling and forced Johnson to hit an awkward layup, a footwork issue before Johnson even began to drive is what hurt LaVine:

“At the end of the game, where Zach got beat,” Flip said, “he was supposed to be in, which he was, but you’re never supposed to be above your man. He was two steps above. So when they threw the ball to Johnson, that gave him a straight-line drive to the basket. Those are the things that you can learn.”

A picture-by-picture breakdown of what happened:

Final Play 1

LaVine is guarding Johnson in the corner. Francisco Garcia, on the left wing, is signaling for Johnson to switch places with him, a subtle but important move.

Final Play 2

As Motiejunas (#20 in red) comes to set the pick, you see that LaVine is the primary helper on a drive, and Thad Young is relegated to standing in the corner near Garcia. Now LaVine is likely to have to make some kind of play on the ball, which Houston much prefers to the veteran Young.

Final Play 3

Flip talked about LaVine being “two steps above” his man, but the real issue isn’t with LaVine’s positioning here, in my humble opinion. He needs to be right about there to help cut off a floater or a drive if Terry beats Wiggins after the pick. The problem comes in the next picture…

Final Play 4

… LaVine closes straight out on Johnson instead of closing back to his left (and our right), ceding all kinds of space for a drive.

Final Play 5

LaVine does a fine job of getting his arms up and contesting without fouling, forcing Johnson to hit a somewhat tough layup, but the result speaks for itself.

It’s a refrain that’ll be repeated often this season: it’s one thing to know that the young guys will have some growing pains and saying you’re comfortable with it, and quite another to see it happen when it costs the team a game. All in all, LaVine’s numbers (17 points on 12 shots, 6 rebounds and 4 assists) were pretty good, but missing out on the finer details on two critical possessions hurt the Wolves. On the plus side, the coaching staff has some tape to show him what he did wrong, and LaVine has the experience – something that can’t be replicated – burned into his memory.

A few other notes from this one:

– FREE SHABAZZ!

Britt Robson had a very, very nice piece about Shabazz Muhammad the other day, and the Wolves’ shooting guard kept his hot streak going in the loss to the Rockets. 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting, 4 rebounds (it felt like he had many, many more), 1 assist and zero turnovers in 27 minutes. Over his past four games, Muhammad is averaging 18 points and 6 rebounds in 25 minutes per game on 58% field goals. He’s also getting to the line 5 times per game, making 70% from there.

Last night, he sparked the Wolves when he entered at the end of the opening quarter and sustained it through Minnesota’s resurgent second period. In the second half, he was the first sub off the bench (for Wiggins, less than five minutes in) and was met with Trevor Ariza, one of the best wing defenders in the NBA, who gave him some problems. Still. Shabazz. Free him.

– EASE UP ON THAD!

Yeah, he missed some key free throws late, but overall, he was okay. He had more points than shots, which isn’t awesome, but carried the offense for long stretches of the first quarter, keeping them afloat until the rest of the team got going. I saw some chatter on social media about him being “horrible.” He wasn’t. (This paragraph was brought to you by Steve McPherson, President and CEO, Thaddeus Young Fan Club.)

– CHASE… 

This was probably his best game of the season (10 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists in 27 minutes) but on back to back first quarter possessions he turned the ball over and it was kind of not so great:

– IN CONCLUSION…

I’m not sure this exercised the demons from Wednesday night’s loss to the Sixers, because I’m not sure there are enough Bibles or holy water on God’s green earth to do that, but it was fun watching the Wolves be competitive against a very good team. They had their chances to win and fought hard against a very, very good opponent. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that James Harden had 38 points on 17 shots and is really, really, really, really, really, really, really fun to watch in person. He’s good.

Minnesota hopped on a plane late last night and take on the defending champs at 7:30 this evening. That doesn’t sound like fun.

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11 Responsesso far.

  1. Tbolf says:

    Flip worst coach of the year. Waived important/key players before the season Barea, Fesenko. Should have waived GR3, Hummel. Doesn’t know much about x and o’s

  2. Jacob says:

    This game just made me shake my head even more at the loss to Philly. This is what I think we should expect this year. Hard fought close games that our young team struggles to win. Is it crazy to think we could be floating around 500 if the Rubio injury hadn’t occurred?

  3. Daron says:

    Jacob, .500 in the Western conference lands the Wolves at 9th or 10th seed seed, especially now that the Clippers are figuring things out and OKC has Durant/Westbrook back. This year will be devoted solely to developing young talent, and acquiring even more young talent in the 2015 draft. There’s zero incentive to playing at near .500 ball.

  4. William Bohl says:

    Daron, there is incentive to be playing .500 ball – the players and coaches want to win. With the injuries it’s difficult, obviously. But no one in the day-to-day ops is thinking about tanking and collecting assets right now.

    And Jacob, I don’t know if they’d be .500 with a healthy team but they’d be close. The Wolves miss Rubio badly.

  5. patrick says:

    I’m trying to…… drink away the part of the day I can not sleep away.

  6. farnorth says:

    If being in the lottery 10 straight years has taught us anything it’s losing only breeds losing. I would rather us be the 9th team in the west and miss the playoffs by a single game and know that progress has been made than see us with the most chances to win the next lottery.

    At some point you need to quit revving the engine and put the damn car in drive and go. That time is now.

  7. Alex says:

    That time isn’t now. That time was last year when we had an actual shot at the playoffs. Yeah we want everyone to play their hardest and try to win but this season is definitely more important for the development of skills and gaining more experience. This team didn’t have a legitimate shot at going anywhere even before the injuries. They should let the injured veterans take their time getting back so our young guys have a chance to grow. The fact that we’ll finish near the top of the lottery is just a perk. Don’t be an idiot farnorth.

  8. Pyrrol says:

    Losing in excess destroys confidence and can limit the ability to properly develop. Watching this one slip away in embarrassing fashion was hard. Losing to Philly really was a hit to this team and organization’s confidence. Before Philly we were starting into a tailspin and we needed something to pull us out. Losing to the 76er’s, and while there were playing horrid, put the throttle down on the spin. Given the situation, there is no sliver lining to playing Houston tough but losing in the end. This game has the odor of the last time we might even have a chance to win again for quite a while. It is damaging to blow an opportunity to pull out of the spin and perhaps start building confidence again. Sometimes it seems like confidence or lack of it is one of the most important factors in how a team does. You see overconfident teams overachieving all the time, and teams with their confidence shattered underachieving all the time (Wolves losing to Philly). So, yeah, winning in a game where the object is winning is important, even to a team in progress.

    I’m getting more and more worried about our coaching and system…

    Thad Young is playing horribly. He has a great excuse and I’m not mad. But he’s a shadow of himself, and there seems to be no timetable for the return of a normal Thad.

    Personally, I find Harden to be a snore to watch. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing him live, though. He started the cheap, wily, get to the line thing so common with arthritic stars when he was barely in the league long enough to have whiskers. He’s skilled, he’s crafty, sure. But more than anything, he’s relentlessly aggressive (and a shot and ball hog) and shamelessly in search of the free throw line. He has no star level NBA level skill other than getting to the line and hitting his free throws. I used to like him a lot more when he wasn’t quite this shameless.

  9. Scott says:

    Harden is to offensive flopping that ginobili is to defensive flopping. Harden initiates contact throws his head backe like someone just sucker punched him and the refs reward him for it over and over. No argument that he’s a very good player but Its disgraceful and cheapens his game.

  10. Fan says:

    I never for the draft right rather than gain the habit of losing. You want to pick Derrick Williams, Johny Flynn, Wesley Johnson again? Or even we can pick another star like K Love, then we wait for 3 to 4 years more. And then we deal with the problem for the salary cap for being 3 to 4 stars in a team??? I think the status for wolves right now is OK. For sure this year is just for development, but let the youngsters believe that this team can win is always important. If you let me bet, I will bet 76ers will break the record for the team with the longest streak without playoff in 10 years.

  11. Ed says:

    Is this a good place to offer the suggestion that MN look at Jeremy Lin? The Lakers don’t seem to want him and he’d HAVE to be happier in MN.

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