The Houston Rockets took control of their playoff series with the Timberwolves by imposing their obvious advantage, as point guards James Harden and Chris Paul dominated Game 4.
If the Timberwolves are to extend the series, they will need to introduce what would seem to be their advantage — two post players who can score, rebound, and theoretically take advantage of the Rockets’ lack of interior height.
In Game 5 Wednesday in Houston, the Wolves need more from Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson, the rising star and savvy veteran who have too often disappeared during their first playoff series together.
Towns has gradually become more effective as the series has progressed. He produced an impressive 22 points and 15 rebounds in the Game 4 loss. But those statistics don’t tell the story of the game.
Often Towns received the ball on the wing or in the low post with only one smaller defender on him. Sometimes that defender was Harden, who is about 7 inches shorter than Towns.
We have seen Towns dominate Draymond Green, the great Warriors defender, but Towns has not taken advantage of Harden and other potential mismatches in this series. Instead of taking the smaller man to the basket and drawing a foul or scoring, Towns often has allowed himself to be muscled away from the basket and has given up the ball. While conventional wisdom dictates that Towns pass out of double-teams, the Wolves’ current reality is that they have no chance of winning the series unless Towns decides to dominate.
Gibson has been one of the Wolves’ great success stories this season. He has disappeared during the playoffs. He doesn’t match up well against Houston and is averaging just 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds. The Rockets are ignoring him, and he isn’t making them pay.
If Towns mimics Anthony Davis and Gibson mimics his regular-season self, the Wolves will have a matchup advantage inside against shorter opponents. That may not be enough for the Wolves to win — if the Rockets make a reasonable percentage of their three-point shots, the Wolves countering with two-pointers won’t matter. But if Towns and Gibson dominate inside, they will give the Wolves a chance to compete, and perhaps they will create more open three-pointers if the Rockets defense collapses on them.
Monday night, the Rockets didn’t double-team Towns as much as in earlier games, and when they did double-team, they did so after a delay. That approach allowed Towns to have his best offensive game of the series, but also caused him to pause with the ball, analyzing his options instead of attacking.
“I was just trying to take what they were giving me,” Towns said. “I still feel it was the same kind of defense as the first games. Sometimes, you know, I think they tried to change it up on me a little bit, coming a little later, rather than right away. Also, we had such great spacing and such good ball movement that it made it very hard for them to do their game plan.”
Of course, the Wolves could have played better on offense and still failed to keep up with the Rockets. But Towns could have altered the game by getting Harden into foul trouble.
What Game 4 confirmed was that the Rockets are the superior team, and that the Wolves can’t afford to lose their composure or defensive connectedness. Harden took advantage of defensive lapses to make wide-open shots. He also hit contested shots.
Towns is the Wolves’ most talented player, and Gibson might be their most reliable one. Towns too often has been ineffective in this series, and Gibson has too often been absent. Imposing their will inside against the Rockets’ short-but-stout defenders wouldn’t necessarily swing the series in the Wolves’ favor, and Towns may not yet be at a point in his career where he’s ready to dominate a good team. But that’s what the Wolves require if they are to have a chance to extend this series.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib firstname.lastname@example.org