Another sellout crowd will pack Target Center on Saturday night, this time for an NBA playoff game Timberwolves fans have waited to cheer at for 14 long years.
The way point guard Jeff Teague sees it, his team must play for the first time in this best-of-seven series against Houston with a purpose and pace that matches the arena’s energy if they intend to avoid elimination’s brink.
“Play with a lot of tempo and try to get the crowd into the game,” Teague said. “Make it a fast-paced game.”
He said his team didn’t do that often enough in the series’ first two games, when they took the Rockets down to the final second before losing by three points Sunday and scored only 82 points after a lopsided second quarter Wednesday in Houston.
“What we’ve been playing like hasn’t worked,” Teague said. “We lost both games, and we played a slow pace. I think we played right into their hands. Last time we played them here at home [in March], we got out in the second half and picked up the pace and made it a closer game. That’s the only way we can play to be successful against this team.”
Teague wants to give Target Center fans something to cheer in the first playoff game held there since Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell beat the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals before they lost the series in six games.
So, too, does Wolves All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns.
“It’s going to be great,” Towns said. “They deserve this. This organization, all of our fans, they deserve this moment. I said before the playoffs, this is bigger than just us. This is about our fans.”
Now all Teague, Towns and the Wolves must do is find their winning pace.
The Rockets have taken both playoff first-timer Towns and fellow All-Star Jimmy Butler out of both games. They’ve double-teamed Towns at nearly every turn, limiting him to a combined 13 points — or 43 fewer than the franchise-record 56 he scored against Atlanta last month. Butler has been held to 11 and 13 points and, after Wednesday’s loss, wondered if he doesn’t need to be more assertive offensively rather than let the game dictate if he should shoot or pass.
“We have a lot of guys who can attack off the dribble and get into the lane,” Teague said.”It starts with Jimmy. We have to fight fire with fire, man. They can score the ball, but we can, too. I think we’ve been so focused on defense and what they can do and not focused on what we can do. If we do what we can do, it will be a better game.”
The Rockets made only two three-pointers more than the Wolves did in Game 1 and superstar James Harden went 2-for-18 from the field in Game 2 and still they won both games. They also were held to 36.5 percent shooting in Game 2 — their lowest percentage in a playoff victory since 2007 — and shot an NBA playoff record 52 threes but made only 16.
The Wolves fared well all season forcing turnovers — they tied for fourth best in the league creating them (15.1 a game) and scoring off them. But they’ve been unable to flummox a Rockets backcourt that thrives with the ball in the hands of Harden and Chris Paul.
Paul inexplicably turned the ball six times in the series opener, but the Wolves scored only one point off 11 Rockets turnovers. In Game 2, the Wolves scored 10 points off nine turnovers.
“We made plays on the ball, got turnovers,” Teague said. “But we didn’t get out and push the pace like we know we can. I think we were trying to stay close rather than playing freely, doing what we can do.”
On Friday, Teague and Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau called for Towns to be more active running the floor and establishing post position deep under the basket.
“He’s a dominant player,” teammate Andrew Wiggins said. “If he dominates [Saturday], we’ll win.”