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Preview: Rockets at Timberwolves

Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves:


The Basics:

Houston Rockets (34-17) at Minnesota Timberwolves (24-27)

Point Differential:

Minnesota: +3.7 (NBA rank: 9th)

Houston: +3.9 (NBA rank: 8th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Minnesota: 104.7 (9th)

Houston: 107.6 (6th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Minnesota: 102.7 (13th)

Houston: 102.2 (10th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Minnesota: 99.64 (3rd)

Houston: 97.99 (7th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Minnesota: 47.9% (24th)

Houston: 53.0% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Minnesota: 13.7 (2nd)

Houston: 16.4 (28th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Minnesota: 51.3% (9th); offensive rebound rate: 28.1% (5th); defensive rebound rate: 76.0% (T-4th)

Houston: 51.5% (7th); offensive rebound rate: 26.9% (12th); defensive rebound rate: 73.1% (T-23rd)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Minnesota: .309 (6th)

Houston: .395 (1st)

Welcome to the curious case of the Minnesota Timberwolves – the league’s No. 1 enigma for the 2013-14 season to date. They have a bona fide superstar in Kevin Love, a Hall of Fame caliber head coach in Rick Adelman, a solid supporting cast and just about everything else a playoff contending team could want. Their point differential – less than two tenths of a point below that of the 34-17 Rockets - screams postseason participant. Click on ESPN.com’s Hollinger Power Rankings – a computerized ranking system that accounts for scoring margin, strength of schedule, recent performance and other variables – and you’ll see the T-Wolves all way up at No. 6.

And that, I’m afraid, is where the good times end.

Chief among Minnesota’s maladies this season has been an allergy that apparently prevents the Timberwolves from winning close games; their record in contests decided by four points or fewer this far: an unfathomable 1-12 (keep in mind, such contests historically amount to little more than 50-50 coin flips). Injuries aren't helping matters as starting center Nikola Pekovic has missed the club’s last seven games and likely won’t return until after the All-Star break, Kevin Martin is out indefinitely after fracturing his thumb and Love, questionable for tonight’s contest, has been battered and bruised of late as well. Add it all up and you have a team that’s three games below .500, six full games behind Golden State for the West’s 8th and final playoff seed, and a club that currently has less than a 27 percent chance of qualifying for postseason play according to the latest Hollinger Playoff Odds. Ouch.

Things are obviously much more rosy in Rockets land. The last time these two teams met each other, Houston kicked off a season-best five-game winning streak by virtue of a 112-101 triumph over the Timberwolves. With a victory tonight, the Rockets would top that stretch and secure their sixth straight W. And though nothing is guaranteed, they have to like their chances heading into the evening; not only have injuries wreaked havoc with Minnesota’s rotation, but this statistical nugget looms large as well: the Wolves are just 6-19 this season against teams who currently own a winning record – a mark that includes losses in 11 of their last 12 such games.

Know Thy Enemy

- While free throws are rarely one of the more fascinating subplots of any game, the lack of wow factor they possess does nothing to diminish their significance toward impacting winning and losing. With that in mind, tonight’s contest possesses the potential to feature an intriguing clash at the charity stripe. The Rockets, of course, live at the line, parading there at a rate that far exceeds any other team in the league. Minnesota, meanwhile, sends its opponents to the free throw line less frequently than anyone else (Adelman, in fact, has actually gone on record imploring his club to foul more. "It almost takes an act of Congress for us to go out and foul somebody," he said following the T-Wolves’ January loss to Sacramento. "You have to get after people in this league.").

True to form, Minnesota sent the Rockets to the line a relatively paltry 16 times when these two clubs faced off back on November 23.

- Another key category to keep your eye on: tonight’s turnover battle. Minnesota is top-five in the NBA in forcing turnovers (the Timberwolves generate turnovers on more than 16 percent of their opponents’ possessions) and top-10 in the league in pace-adjusted scoring that comes as a direct result of those turnovers.

Ricky Rubio (No. 1 in the league in steals) and Corey Brewer (15th) are particularly larcenous, and that pilfering pair combined to rack up nine steals against Houston the last time they met. Limiting those live-ball turnovers will be a major point of emphasis for the Rockets tonight, especially in light of the fact they coughed up the ball 24 times leading to 37 Minnesota points that November night.

- It’s not a newsflash that superstars make a world of difference in the NBA but, goodness gracious, are the Timberwolves ever reliant upon the extraordinary talents of Kevin Love. With their All-Star on the floor, Minnesota churns out a top-five caliber offense that produces at a rate of 108.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, that number drops to 94.7 – an efficiency mark that would rank dead last in the league, well behind that of even the woebegone Milwaukee Bucks. Not surprisingly, then, the T-Wolves boast a net rating of +6.3 when Love plays and a nasty -9.5 mark when he’s sitting on the bench.

- Maybe it’s the icy temps (the low in Minneapolis today: -13) that have put Minnesota’s pro hoops team in a hockey state of mind – how else to explain the fact that the Timberwolves seem to shut things down for the night at the conclusion of the third period? Minnesota owns a positive net rating in each of the first three quarters – and it leads the entire NBA with a +9.4 net rating in the first period – but the final frame has featured nothing but fear and loathing from the T-Wolves this season.

Only Detroit has been worse in the fourth quarters this year, as Minnesota owns a -10.4 rating for the final period. The breakdowns have occurred on both sides of the ball, with the Timberwolves posting a bottom-10 defensive efficiency number in the period while producing points at a rate that is 28th in the league – truly head-shaking and mystifying marks given the collection of talent on hand.

In the spotlight

The Achilles’ heel of Minnesota’s defense lies in its lack of rim protection – the T-Wolves are dead last in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage (65.2 percent) within the restricted area – a fact that has to have Dwight Howard licking his chops right about now. Houston’s All-Star big man has been on a serious roll of late, averaging more than 26 points on nearly 59 percent shooting from the field over the course of his club’s last five games.

With Pekovic out, the task of attempting to slow Howard figures to fall upon the likes of Ronny Turiaf and rookie Gorgui Dieng. In other words, the odds are good that Dwight will depart frigid Minnesota with his hot streak still very much intact.

Injury Update

Greg Smith (knee) and Isaiah Canaan (hamstring) are out.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.