I joined the On the NBA Beat podcast the other day, and the host asked me an interesting question: do I have a preference for whether the Wolves wind up the third or fourth seed in the West? The thinking is that the higher-seeded team would miss the Golden State Warriors in the second round, provided there are no first-round upsets, of course. And my answer was, “I don’t know if it matters, because there’s no way Minnesota would beat either Golden State OR Houston in a playoff series. They just don’t match up with either team. At all.”
Tuesday night’s game backs me up, I think.
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) February 14, 2018
As far as I can tell, the Western Conference can be broken down into 5 tiers. At the top are the Warriors and Rockets, who are (in my opinion) the clear-cut two best teams in the entire league. Next is the Spurs and Timberwolves, who will likely fight over the third seed right down to the final games of the season. The third tier is comprised of six teams who are fighting over the four remaining playoff spots: the Thunder, Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, Clippers and now the Jazz (thanks to their recent 10 game winning streak). Fourth, in a tier all by themselves, are the Los Angeles Lakers; they’re 12-5 since January 7th, and since they don’t own their own pick in the 2018 Draft, have no incentive to mail it in the rest of the way. And finally, in the bottom-most tier, the Grizzlies, Kings, Suns, and Mavericks are rolling tanks from city to city until game 82 is over for each.
Now, the Wolves’ desired playoff seeding could be affected by who they’d have to play in the first round; I don’t want to overlook that angle. I know Minnesota is 3-1 versus Oklahoma City this season, but I still would rather avoid Russell Westbrook and Paul George in a postseason series, so I guess I’d root for the Wolves to clinch whichever seed has them playing Portland/Denver/New Orleans or whoever. Winning one postseason series should be the goal. That’d be cool! That’d be fun.
Because there’s no way in hell they’re winning two.
Anyway, I should probably talk about the game itself, rather than daydreaming about the postseason…
The Wolves got off to a very solid start, with this Jeff Teague 3 capping off a 7-0 run to open the ballgame:
Teague 3 ball pic.twitter.com/WHHjLcj3kC
— A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) February 14, 2018
Minnesota dominated the entire frame, with three players (KAT, Jimmy, Teague) scoring 8 or more points apiece, and the team outrebounding Houston 14-to-7 while also turning 4 Rocket turnovers into 6 fastbreak points. The gameplan was clearly to pound the ball into the paint with whoever Clint Capela wasn’t guarding; Mike D’Antoni opened with James Harden defending Taj quite often, and the Wolves sought to exploit that mismatch as often as they could. They led 31-to-23 after the first.
Over the rest of the game, Houston outscored Minnesota 103-to-77.
There were plenty of reasons for the downfall, and all of them have to do with matchups. The Rockets’ bench combined to score 48 points and shoot 11-of-25 from deep, whereas the Wolves’ bench had an abysmal first half stint and was only bailed out in the second half by Jamal Crawford’s hot hand. Minnesota’s wings had a very difficult time defending the three; Houston launched 47 (!!!!!!) three-pointers, knocking down 22 of them. The home team just couldn’t keep up, draining just 6 of their 23 tries. It really was a whole lot of trading twos for threes, and as the old adage says, it didn’t work; Minnesota outscored Houston 54-to-32 in the paint, but were outscored 66-to-18 from outside and failed to get their usual quota of “twice as many foul shots as their opponent” (both teams made 22 free throws). After turning it over 4 times in the first quarter, Houston had just 2 turnovers in the final 36 minutes of the contest.
Two individual efforts stood out for the Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns had 35 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks on 12-of-16 shooting. He did this despite having to deal with Clint Capela, who actually did a pretty damn good job being physical with Karl and frustrating him. Jeff Teague, who finished with 25 points and 8 assists, also carried the team for long stretches.
It was their stellar play, combined with the aforementioned Crawford “hot hand” stint in the second half, that had the Wolves within 4 with 7:54 to play. But then… Ryan Anderson hit a three on a broken play. Andrew Wiggins (more on him in a second) committed a silly turnover by stepping out of bounds. Ryan Anderson hit another three. Andrew Wiggins missed a three. Ryan Anderson missed a three, Chris Paul got the offensive rebound, and found PJ Tucker for a corner trey. Jimmy Butler missed a three. And finally, James Harden drilled a stepback three in his defender’s face, and the 4-point lead had ballooned to 16. The game was over.
Andrew Wiggins was terrible. Terrible. Early in the second quarter, Jim Petersen stated on the broadcast that Wiggins looked “so disinterested” on the floor. He missed his first 12 shot attempts, and finished the game with 7 points, 3 rebounds, 0 assists and was a minus-25 in nearly 41 (?!?) minutes of action. Granted, it was his first real clunker in awhile, but it was a very disappointing game out of the guy you sort of count on to bring it against high-level competition. Like… hopefully… the playoffs?
There I go again.