HOUSTON – All season, the Timberwolves scored among the NBA’s best offensive teams and struggled, mightily at times, to defend.
Now down 0-2 in their first playoff series since the 2004 Western Conference finals, the script has been flipped.
The Wolves have defended the Rockets’ explosive offense respectably, holding a team that averaged 112.4 points in the regular season to 104 in Game 1 and 102 in Game 2.
But suddenly, a Wolves team that averaged 109.5 points a game can’t score, particularly their two All-Stars, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler.
While Rockets superstar James Harden scored 44 points in Game 1 and Chris Paul followed with 27 in Game 2, Towns has scored only five and eight points in the first two games and Butler 13 and 11 for a team whose 82 points matched the fewest the Rockets allowed all season.
“It’s pretty different, right?” Wolves point guard Jeff Teague asked. “We usually score the ball so easily.”
The Wolves came out Sunday intent on getting Towns more involved than he was in Game 1, when he took only nine shots and only one in the fourth quarter of a game that went down to the final buzzer. They did early, but Towns again shot only nine times, none after midway through the second quarter on a night when the Wolves starters didn’t play a second in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss.
Meanwhile, Butler took only six shots himself while Andrew Wiggins has led the Wolves in shots taken in both games, with 15 in Game 1 and 14 in Game 2.
“We’ll be OK,” Butler said afterward. “I think we do have to do more, me and him, along with everybody else. It’s never just one person or two people or three people. But we are a big part of it, though, I will say that. So it goes for both of us. We have to be better at both ends of the court.”
On Sunday the Wolves made eight three-pointers compared to the Rockets 10, and on Wednesday Harden had a 2-for-18 shooting night.
The Rockets won 102-82 despite being outshot 38.8 percent to 36.5 percent, probably because they shot an NBA playoff record 52 threes and made 16 of them compared to the Wolves’ five made.
Once known almost exclusively as a one-dimensional, offensive-minded team, the Rockets have surrounded Harden and Paul with defenders Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela and the injured Luc Mbah a Moute.
Now Houston has effectively taken Towns out of both games offensively by double-teaming him often.
“That’s what we talk about all the time,” Tucker said about the Rockets’ defense. “It’s the way our team is built.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau called his team “frustrated” after they led Wednesday’s game 22-13 early and then were swept away by the Rockets’ 37-17 second quarter.
Thibodeau called for Towns to be more active near the basket and run the floor harder.
“They’re doing a good job on him and when you’re doing the things they’re doing, he has to play with energy,” Thibodeau said. “He’s learning. Karl’s a very talented player. He’ll figure it out.”
Towns said there is no time to get frustrated and there is only time for “positivity” heading into the series’ next game.
“This is the playoffs,” Towns said. “It’s a different ballgame. The physicality is different. Everything is different all around. The way the game is played is different. We have to adjust accordingly.”
Down 0-2 and headed Saturday to play the first playoff game at Target Center since Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference finals, Butler said he might need to change his own tactics, too.
“Maybe I need to be a little more aggressive or assertive,” Butler said. “I just always try to take what the game gives me. If I’m open, shoot or try to get the ball to somebody who’s open. I’m never worried about offense. … I don’t think about offense. I really do think about defense. Offense is going to come when it does. I just want to see us win.”
Teague wants to see his team play with more “pace” and “free” like they did for much of the regular season. He also stressed the need to get Towns and Butler producing.
“They’re our primary — and Wigs, he’s playing well — but it’s tough,” Teague said. “They’re doing a good job of eliminating our two best players and we’ve just got to figure out a way to make some things happen.”