First things first: happy 60th birthday to Phillip D. “Flip” Saunders and happy 20th birthday to Andrew Christian Wiggins. That’s right, they share the same birthday. They were destined to be together.
It’s always fun when the Timberwolves play the Rockets, especially if you’re the type of person who loves seeing contradictory approaches clash on the field of play, as I do. I enjoy football games pitting a run and gun squad against a defensive-minded one, I love watching a pitcher battle a deep lineup (think prime Pedro Martinez against the ’98 Yankees), and I enjoy seeing Daryl Morey’s analytics-powered basketball Frankenstein chase around the old-school villagers from Minnesota.
Here are the shot charts for the two teams from last night’s game:
To put it another way:
The Wolves and Rockets shot a similar number of shots in the paint and from the free throw line, two of the three tenets of Moreyball, but the two teams have a slight difference of opinion on the third: midrange shots are bad (Houston), midrange shots are okay (Minnesota). Kevin McHale’s bunch avoids them like the plague, opting for a look from between 15 and 23 feet only when all other options have been exhausted. On the other hand, many of Flip Saunders’ plays are designed specifically to generate open midrange attempts.
And while there’s been an exhaustive amount of digital ink spilled in the name of decrying the Wolves’ scheme and exalting the Rockets’ as some platonic ideal of the analytical approach, there they were, locked in a close game with under 6:00 to go in the fourth quarter. Minnesota’s best player, Andrew Wiggins, had been guarding Houston’s best player (and MVP frontrunner) James Harden all night long, and while overall it was a mixed performance for the 20-year-old, he excelled on the defensive end in this possession, then ran the floor beautifully to bring the game even closer:
While it can be interesting to look at the big picture, at shot charts and strategies and the mathematical arguments for or against how certain teams operate, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun to forget all that and watch two players go toe to toe when the game is in the balance. Wiggins certainly didn’t shut Harden down – not even close, actually, he finished with a triple double – but there were moments like the one above that showcased the rookie’s potential to become a defensive pest in the very near future, and an offensive dynamo as well.
There were good possessions:
There were bad possessions:
Ultimately, the night belonged to James Harden, who is on pace to become only the third player in NBA history (Michael Jordan and LeBron James are the others) to average 27 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2 steals per game. Wiggins is still learning on the job, and watching him battle the most efficient scorer in the league all night long was a fun, if not ultimately rewarding, litmus test for Wolves fans.
A few other odds and ends from this one:
– The Rockets started 1-for-16 from beyond the arc, but hit 11-of-22 afterwards.
– The Wolves were shooting 48% at halftime… then, in the second half, they made 10-of-49 shots. They went 4-for-30 in the third quarter alone. Eesh:
– The game had a really weird flow. The two teams combined to turn the ball over 36 times and shot just 37% from the field, but it didn’t feel like a sloppy mess from a ball handling standpoint. It did feel like a volleyball match at times – the Wolves and Rockets each topped 20 offensive rebounds, so there were plenty of sequences featuring tall guys jumping in the lane after an elusive ball for ten seconds. Part of the reason Minnesota’s shooting percentage was so low is that they were just 4-of-15 on putbacks off of offensive boards. Pekovic, Wiggins, Dieng, Payne – all of them struggled in this department.
– Speaking of Adreian Payne – he made his first career start and finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes. He shot poorly (4-of-15) and looked a tad lost at times, but considering he’s been in the fold for less than two weeks, and was toiling away in the D-League prior to that, it was a solid enough performance on a night when the Timberwolves needed it badly. They came into the game with just three healthy bigs since Kevin Garnett won’t be joining the team until Wednesday night.
– Hey, speaking of Kevin Garnett, I’m most interested to see just how he can help Gorgui Dieng’s game. Dieng possesses all of the tools necessary to be a very good center but is missing some of the refinement – his timing can be off on defensive rotations and he tends to hold the ball a little too much on offense. That being said, he did have a pair of sweet passes last night that shouldn’t be overlooked:
– In my eyes, the game-winning possession for the Rockets came with just under 2:30 to go, with the Wolves down by 6. Harden starts with the ball out near half-court and calls Donatus Motiejunas over for the pick and roll. Pekovic and Wiggins work the defensive angles in rather odd fashion, and Pekovic ends up all the way out near half-court on Harden, almost as if the two were supposed to trap. Wiggins, on the other hand, slacks back toward the top of the key, leaving Pek all alone on Harden. Instead of driving, however, Harden makes the smart play, passing to Motiejunas along the left wing. Minnesota overshifts the defense, allowing Trevor Ariza to stand wide open on the right wing, and after Motiejunas finds him, he buries the three:
– K.G. ought to help fix such communication blunders, I imagine.
– Finally… I hate to close with this, but it’s so delightfully evil, I can’t help it. James Harden put Ricky Rubio on roller skates to sink this three at the end of the third quarter. I even broke it down in slow motion. You’re a mean, mean man, James Harden: