Houston soundly swept the Timberwolves 4-0 in their regular-season series due to simple mathematics and this reliable fact: 3 > 2.
In their best-of-seven playoff series that the Rockets still lead 2-1, the Wolves have noticeably narrowed a three-point shot disparity in which they were lapped during the regular season. In Saturday’s rollicking 121-105 victory in Game 3, they pulled dead even, at least for one night.
That development gives the Wolves a fighting chance against an opponent that shoots threes at a historical pace.
Outdone 69-34 in three-pointers made during that four-game regular-season sweep, the Wolves made as many as Houston — 15 of them — on Saturday, but the Rockets hoisted 14 more attempts, 51 to the Wolves’ 37.
“Well, we’ll take the 15 for sure,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said, referring to an uncharacteristically high number made by his team.
This season, the teams had one meeting in February where Houston made 22 threes to the Wolves’ six. In Game 1 of this first-round series, the Rockets had a mere 10-8 edge, but in Game 2 Houston attempted an NBA record 52 threes and hit 16, or 11 more than the Wolves’ five.
That’s a 33-point differential in a game the Rockets won 102-82.
“I don’t even know what the three-point disparity is,” Rockets guard Chris Paul said before Houston practiced Sunday at Target Center. “I just know they made 15 yesterday.”
Thibodeau was asked if his team is defending the three-point line better.
“It doesn’t seem that way,” he said. “They’re going to keep firing them. That’s who they are. We want to defend the three well. They’re going to take 40 to 50 of them. You have to be up on them. Sometimes you’re right there and they still make them. They shoot them deep.”
Wolves stars Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins each went 4-for-6 on threes in Saturday’s victory, and point guard Jeff Teague shot 3-for-5 while the team followed its coach’s “Trust the Pass” mantra and recorded 29 assists.
“I want us to take more threes,” said Thibodeau, whose team shot and made the NBA’s fewest threes in the regular season. “It’s something we have to continue to work at.”
The Wolves shot 55.6 percent on threes Saturday, Houston 36.6 percent. But the Rockets kept on shooting all night.
Maybe it was simply a case of the Rockets missing shots they normally make, or the Wolves making some they normally don’t.
Rockets veteran forward P.J. Tucker cast his vote Sunday.
“We’re just missing a lot of wide-open shots,” Tucker said. “A lot of good shots that we have been making all year. We’ll continue to take shots because we’ve done it all year.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, too, doesn’t consider it a case of the Wolves defending the three-point line all that much better.
“I don’t know if they’ve figured anything out,” D’Antoni said. “We took 51 threes [52, actually] the second game. I don’t know how many last night, 37, 38 [41, actually]? We’re kind of on track. We’ll adjust and do some little things that will make us better. But you’re not going to change your game plan or change how you are. We are who we are. We’re just going to have to get a lot better.”
D’Antoni wants to see his team better match the energy and intensity with which the Wolves played during their first home playoff game in 14 years. He also wants his players to better get back on defense and “build a wall” that dissuades their opponent from shooting open threes in transition.
Paul said his team allowed the Wolves to score every which way, to the tune of 121 points — 39 more than they scored in Game 2. That’s the most points against the Rockets since Golden State scored 124 on Jan. 4. Paul called some of the three-pointers the Wolves attempted “butt-nekked” open, too.
“That’s an image I can’t get off of,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t need that.”
The Rockets scored 129, 126, 120 and 116 points in its four regular-season games against the Wolves and won the first three of those games by 18 points each. They haven’t scored more than Saturday’s 105 points in any of this playoff series’ first three games.
The Wolves aren’t about to declare they have done anything to limit the way the Rockets play.
“I mean, we’re not finding anything,” veteran guard Derrick Rose said. “We’re just playing hard, competing.”
There’s no stopping Rockets shooters Paul, fellow star James Harden, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green and Ryan Anderson — now back from a sprained ankle — among others.
But the Wolves will try.
“We’re trying to get better,” Wolves forward Taj Gibson said. “It’s really hard to defend those guys. James, you just have to have a prayer basically. His step-back [shot] is always hit or miss. When these guys shoot the ball, you automatically think they’re going to make them. Sometimes we get the better hand. We just have to keep playing strong defense.”