Timberwolves fans age 13 or younger got their first taste of playoff basketball. And boy, it was beautiful. Wearing the same gray threads they donned while topping Denver in the regular-season finale to clinch a playoff spot, Minnesota hung around with the Western Conference’s best team for all four quarters and had a chance in the final seconds to send it into overtime. Unfortunately, Jimmy Butler’s last-second attempt to tie was off the mark and Houston takes a 1-0 series lead into Game 2. But Minnesota’s fight proved this series will be a hefty challenge for the Rockets, which is bad news for two All-Star players (James Harden and Chris Paul) that aren’t exactly known for prosperous postseason runs. The Rockets won all four regular-season matchups with Minnesota by double digits. That won’t be the case in the playoffs.
Timberwolves need more from Towns, Butler
Karl-Anthony Towns was on the floor for over 40 minutes Sunday, which led the Timberwolves. But it sure didn’t seem like it. His usage percentage -- a measure of the percentage of team plays a player is involved in while on the floor -- was a dismal 14.5 percent, according to basketball-reference.com. Butler wasn’t much better at 15.5 percent. Leading the team was Derrick Rose (31.3) and Gorgui Dieng (27.3), followed by Andrew Wiggins (26.6). Towns and Butler, options No. 1 and No. 2 in the offense, combined for just 21 points on 7-of-20 shooting. Towns, Minnesota’s best 3-point shooter this season at 42.1 percent, attempted two shots from downtown. Now, the Timberwolves don’t necessarily want to get in a 3-point shooting contest with Houston and would prefer Towns to dominate the Rockets inside instead of throwing up 3s, but he should be able to get more than two open looks from 3 the rest of the series.
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Capitalize on Houston’s rare poor shooting nights
The number that hurts the most from Game 1? 27. That’s the Rockets’ 27 percent clip from 3-point land, a surprising stat given the team shattered the NBA’s all-time single-season record with 1,256 3-pointers made. It’s simple: Houston isn’t going to shoot 27 percent from deep in every game, no matter how vicious the Timberwolves’ defense is. The Rockets will get hot. In fact, Houston has shot worse than 27 percent from deep in just three other home games (five overall) this season. If they’re going to advance past the first round, the Timberwolves need to win at least one game on the road. And Houston’s poor shooting from deep -- Harden was 7 of 12 but his teammates combined to go 3 for 25 -- certainly gave the Wolves an opportunity to steal Game 1.
Bench: advantage Timberwolves
One of the bright spots in the Game 1 loss was the play of Minnesota’s bench. Postseason veterans Derrick Rose and Jamal Crawford shined in the spotlight. Crawford knocked down a team-high three 3-pointers en route to 15 points, and Rose tallied 16 points and four assists in just under 24 minutes. Andrew Wiggins (18 points) was the only starter to outscore those two. Gorgui Dieng was effective in eight minutes of action, grabbing three boards and posting seven points, while Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica were held off the score sheet. Minnesota outscored the Rockets’ bench 38-16.
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Execution in tight games has to improve
Down 104-101 with 8.7 seconds remaining, Houston’s Paul accidentally chucked the ball out of bounds. Minnesota had a chance to tie it with a 3. With Game 1 on the line, Butler dribbled the ball coast to coast and hurled an off-balance, fade-away shot -- inside the perimeter, by the way -- at the rim. He missed, and the ball went out of bounds. Game over.
Minnesota had a similar situation in its regular-season finale against Denver. But the best look the Timberwolves managed was a 32-foot jumper from Crawford, who missed badly and the game went into overtime. This series with the Rockets will likely come down to a couple of close games. Factoring in the way Houston can shoot the rock and blow out opponents on any given night, Minnesota needs to execute in the final minute of close games -- or at the very least, draw up a play that opens up a quality shot.