Throughout the playoffs, we’ll be doing series previews for each and every matchup. For more in-depth analysis, check out our Eastern and Western Conference Preview Articles, which covered the conferences at-large. Find all of our NBA playoff content here and on Twitter (@GamblingPodcast and @NBAZachB).
Series Prices and Game 1 Line
Minnesota Timberwolves +1425 vs. Houston Rockets -3750.
G1: MIN @ HOU (-11.5), O/U 216.5, +680/-960.
Regular Season H2H (4-0 HOU)
1/18/18: Minnesota 98, Houston (-5.5) 116. Under 224.5
2/13/18: Houston (-3.5) 126, Minnesota 108. Over 224.
2/23/18: Minnesota 102, Houston (-7.5) 120. Under 223.
3/18/18: Houston (-7) 129, Minnesota 120. Over 222.5.
Facts and Figures
Houston Rockets (#1)
- 65-17 Overall. 41-40-1 ATS. 33-47-2 O/U.
- Leading Scorer: James Harden, 30.4 PPG.
- Best Stats: +8.5 Net Rating (#1), +8.5 Scoring Margin/Gm (#1), 15.3 3-PT/Gm (#1).
- Worst Stats: 48 Opp. Pts in the Paint/Gm (#28), 51.9% Opp. 2-PT FG (#21.)
- Notable Injuries: Luc Mbah a Moute, Shoulder – Out for Round 1. Ryan Anderson, Ankle – Questionable for Game 1, likely to return in series.
Minnesota Timberwolves (#8)
- 47-35 Overall. 37-42-3 ATS. 45-36-1 O/U.
- Leading Scorer: Jimmy Butler 22.2 PPG.
- Best Stats: 49.2 Pts in the Paint/Gm (#4), 80.4% FT (#2), 12.5 TOV/Gm (#2).
- Worst Stats: 47.5% Opp. FG (#29), 8 3-PT/Gm (#30).
- Notable Injuries: None.
Key Overall Matchup
Can Minnesota defend enough to keep up?
In four matchups against Minnesota during the regular season, Houston scored over 115 points in every game and over 120 in three of them. Minnesota has shown an inability to handle Houston’s isolation-heavy attack, allowing Harden to feast and then the rest of the guys to join in on the fun right behind him.
Minnesota was pretty bad defensively all year, but historically so in this particular matchup. Minnesota posted a 129.8 defensive rating in their four games against Houston; it’s a small sample size, but that number is an eye-sore. They weren’t even awful offensively but were made to look, by Houston’s offense, like a truly awful team. Their Net Rating of -17.2 would have been eight points worse than the league-worst Phoenix Suns. In other words, the Rockets made the Wolves look like, by far, the worst team in the league when they faced one another this year.
Minnesota allows its opponents to shoot for a 54% effective field goal percentage, a poor number but also one that is exacerbated by the hyper-efficient Rockets offense. The Wolves are awful at defending the rim, with opponents shooting 54% on all two-pointers. They aren’t much better at defending the perimeter, where teams have shot close to 37% on threes, allowing 11 of them a game. For a Rockets team that will famously prioritize the mathematical efficiency of getting to the rim and shooting threes, Minnesota’s defense is extra susceptible.
The problems presented by Houston’s offense are numerous, and Minnesota’s offense is not prolific enough on its own to outscore Houston over the course of a seven-game series. They will have to get stops, muck up these games, and try to keep Houston at arms’ length. In order to do so, they’ll have to figure out Houston’s offense which made them look silly all year.
Key Individual Matchup
Minnesota defending Harden (or Paul) in the Pick and Roll
James Harden, running pick and roll nearly every single time, just engineered one of the greatest offensive seasons in the history of the NBA. It’s no small task, but Minnesota will have to find a way to slow down the Rockets’ patented pick and roll attack, which is specifically focused on targeting your team’s worst defender, switching him onto Harden/Paul, and making him miserable all night.
Thus, the onus is on guys like Towns and Gibson to do everything in their power to stay in front of guards once the pick and roll is switched. Perhaps Thibodeau can come up with a gimmick or two to throw off the pick and roll like a hard trap or hedge, but late in games, it will have to be a switch.
The Rockets roped off a ridiculous 130 Offensive Rating against a Timberwolves team this year that showed absolutely no ability to defend this type of offense. Harden and Paul both had field days and, if changes aren’t made in both strategy and effort, will do so throughout this series.
Houston is 23-13 ATS as a road favorite this season, yet just 16-22-1 ATS as a home favorite.
Houston is 33-6 SU as a home favorite.
Minnesota is 9-14 ATS and 6-17 SU as a road dog.
Minnesota wins if…
Houston goes cold; Harden and Paul have playoff demons come back to haunt them, Minnesota steals game 1; Jimmy Butler is the best player on the floor.
Houston wins if…
They shoot at least close to as well as they normally do; Harden is locked in.
Rockets in 4.