Rockets 120, Timberwolves 110: You wanna learn how to rhyme, you better learn how to add, it’s mathematics

This makes 4 of the past 6 Wolves-Rockets recaps assigned to yours truly, and if you’ve read the past ones, you probably know what I’m going to talk about. If you haven’t, they’re linked inside the next parentheses (3/20/14, 12/5/142/23/15) for your convenience. Go ahead. Reading them in full will probably take a total of 10 to 15 minutes, skimming them will take 3 to 5, and just opening them in your browser and pretending you’ve read them will help our pageview numbers go up. So go ahead.

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You back? Cool, let’s talk about the same things I always talk about.

I once described last year’s Wolves as “mini-bosses in a role playing video game: pesky enough to be annoying on most levels, but ultimately beatable.” Sadly, that less-than-flattering description is the best case scenario for this year’s team, and pretty much sums up their efforts last night in Houston. Zach LaVine’s defense wasn’t great; it wasn’t great in an early-season loss to the Rockets at home, either, so not much has changed on that front. And in a recap a month ago I broke down the differences in where Houston and Minnesota choose to shoot the ball, which I’ll now expand upon even further, because we have now have four full games to tally up and, the results tell an important mathematical story.

If you’re familiar with basketball analytics and how they are generally applied, you can skip this paragraph and save yourself 30-40 seconds of time. If you’re unfamiliar with anaytics in basketball, the basic tenets are as follows: shots at the rim, the foul line and the corner 3 areas are desirable because they’ve been proven to be converted at a higher rate than others (especially midrange 2s, floaters, and heavily contested shots 5-10 feet away from the hoop). Basically, 3 points are better than 2 points, and if you can’t get a 3, try to get to the rim, because you might get fouled, and have the opportunity to get points 1 at a time.

So here’s how the Wolves and Rockets stack up in terms of field goal attempts from various areas of the floor this season. See if you can tell which is the more analytically inclined team:

TOTAL-ATTEMPTS-3

As you might be able to tell, the answer is Houston. The Wolves took an average of 27.8 midrange shots in the 4 matchups between the 2 teams, and the Rockets took just 9. Houston took 141 3s, or 35.3 per game, while Minnesota tried 10.3. Each team attempted around the same amount of shots inside the restricted area.

It’s funny, because looking at how each team performed in these given areas make it seem like they have comparable shooting skills…

SHOOTING-PERCENTAGE-BY-AREA-3

… but once you + the 1st graph to the 2nd and weight it by points, you end up with something like this:

Total-Points-by-Area

The Rockets hit 57 more 3 pointers than the Wolves did. And despite having an offense that generates “good” midrange looks, Minnesota was still worse at hitting midrange shots than Houston, who only takes a long 2 when everything else on a possession goes absolutely wrong. The Rockets’ dominance in that 1 category swallows up the Wolves advantages in midrange points, paint points outside the restricted area, and free throws. Houston’s 3 point shooting renders Minnesota’s hard work getting to the line and running off of screens for elbow jumpers or running floaters futile.

Which is exactly what happened in last night’s game. The Wolves would work very, very hard to pull within 10, or 9, or 8, or 7, and the Rockets would come back down and hit a 3 on their next 2 trips, and suddenly the lead was back in the double digits again. James Harden finished with 33 points (on 19 total shots, including 6 of 12 threes and 9 of 10 free throws). More than half (44 of 83) of Houston’s shots were from beyond the arc. Trevor Ariza took 10 3s, Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni took 6 apiece, and Corey Brewer and Josh Smith each tried 5. Everyone with the exception of Dwight Howard and Joey Dorsey had a green light from outside.

As far as getting to the rim was concerned, Dwight had it covered, to the tune of 8 dunks:

The Wolves were shorthanded, just like they’ve been for the past 2 weeks. Justin Hamilton was the team’s 3rd big man, but logged just 9 minutes as he eases his way back into things following his ordeal with a head injury. Gorgui Dieng’s stat line looked alright, but he was pretty bad at defending the paint, especially when Howard was in the game (obviously). Payne’s woes on the defensive end continued as well. Lorenzo Brown, Zach LaVine and Sean Kilpatrick were essentially nonfactors.

There were 2 bright spots in the game for Minnesota: Chase Budinger and Andrew Wiggins. Budinger hit 3 of 4 3 pointers and finished with 23 points on 10 shots, a fine effort. He has been the one outside shooter the team can rely on lately (16.7 points per game on 43% 3s over his past 7 games). Wiggins attempted 15 free throws (he’s averaging more than 7 free throws per game since February 25th) and finished through contact at the rim when he got there. It’d be nice if he eliminated the single dribble step back 2, but that’s the offense the team is running, and is sometimes the only option available, so it sort of fits:

Wigg-shot-chart

This little spin and dunk was particularly sweet. I give it a 10 out of 10:

Will the Wolves’ offense bend towards the perimeter as the young players earn Flip Saunders’ trust? Wiggins was shooting 40% from 3 as recently as January 19th, and while he is converting just 18% of them since, he’s got the makings of a good outside shooter. Zach LaVine has hit 49% of his perimeter attempts in March. Shabazz Muhammad, in his limited time, was knocking down 39% of his 3s. If they’re allowed to shoot more, and Kevin Martin (39% career from downtown) returns and Chase Budinger is finally over the multiple knee injuries that have derailed his entire time in Minnesota, the Timberwolves will have a plethora of wings who can knock down outside shots.

We have to hope that ability will equal opportunity for those guys to shoot 3s. Charts like the ones above make the Timberwolves’ offense look like a relic from a bygone era. It’s so hard to compete when everyone else is taking (and making) 3s while you’re taking (and mostly missing) long 2s. Of course, this judgment is based on much more than last night’s game, because the Wolves are so shorthanded that we aren’t learning anything useful anyway. But even when Ricky Rubio was healthy, and the playbook could be opened up, the Wolves were still taking more midrange jumpers and fewer threes than just about every other team.

If you’re interested in the Wolves being good someday, adding perimter shooting is essential. It’s all mathematics.

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