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Preview: Rockets at Timberwolves

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

MINNEAPOLIS - Setting the scene for Houston's matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (52-26) at Minnesota Timberwolves (39-39)

Point Differential:

Minnesota: +3.0 (NBA rank: 10th)

Houston: +4.7 (NBA rank: T-5th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Minnesota: 105.6 (10th)

Houston: 108.6 (4th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Minnesota: 103.7 (13th)

Houston: 102.9 (12th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Minnesota: 99.63 (4th)

Houston: 98.86 (5th)

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: 48.7% (T-20th)

Houston: 53.2% (3rd)

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

Minnesota: 13.7 (2nd)

Houston: 16.4 (29th)

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

Minnesota: 50.5% (14th); offensive rebound rate: 27.5% (T-6th); defensive rebound rate: 74.9% (13th)

Houston: 52.2% (2nd); offensive rebound rate: 27.5% (T-6th); defensive rebound rate: 74.1% (T-19th)

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: .315 (4th)

Houston: .386 (1st)

Finish the job. That is the thought that ought to be front of mind as the Rockets wrap up their three-game road trip tonight in Minnesota. With their magic number to clinch home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs still at two, and a pair of games remaining against the beaten and battered New Orleans Pelicans (who are sitting Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon for what remains of their season) in addition to a home tilt versus the Spurs who will likely be in rest-and-recovery mode themselves, a win tonight would all but cement Toyota Center's status as the host site of a postseason opener Easter weekend.

Make no mistake, however: the Minnesota Timberwolves don't exactly represent any sort of pushover even though Houston has made it seem that way this season, knocking off the Wolves three straight times, all by double digits, with an average margin of victory of more than 17 points per game. But Minnesota also owns wins against Miami, Memphis and San Antonio this month, placing a painful exclamation point on a season that is very likely to end with the Timberwolves shattering the record for best point differential of a non-playoff squad since the NBA expanded to 16 playoff teams for the 1983-84 season (a dubious mark currently owned, coincidentally enough, by the 2000-01 Houston Rockets). This is a quality club, and the Rockets must treat them as such.

Houston is obviously in the driver's seat regardless of what happens tonight. The aforementioned remnants of the Rockets' schedule ought to be conducive to eventually claiming home-court either way. But it should go without saying that the sooner Houston clinches, the better. The Rockets, after all, could use a little R&R themselves and a win tonight would go an awfully long way toward securing an invaluable week of rest, recovery and fine-tuning for what the team hopes will be a long and prosperous postseason run.

Know Thy Enemy

- Kevin Love is awesome. But you knew that already. The Wolves' superstar trails only Kevin Durant and LeBron James in player efficiency rating and is about to become the first NBA player to average at least 25 points, 12 rebounds and four assists over a full season since Charles Barkley accomplished the feat during his MVP season in 1992-93.

And like the 'round mound of rebound,' Love has been beyond valuable to his club as well, with no set of numbers hammering that point home quite like these do: With Love on the floor, Minnesota has posted a robust offensive rating of 108.7 this season. Without him, however, that figure plummets to 97.3. In other words, the second Love grabs a breather on the bench, the Timberwolves' offense transforms from something akin to the Rockets' supercharged score-fest to the Philadelphia 76ers' anemic and inefficient attack. 

- Many things about this Minnesota team confound and don't make sense. For example: the Timberwolves own a good offense despite the fact they can't really shoot (which, by the way, is precisely why Minnesota's offense tends to go in the tank whenever Love is on the bench; the spacing he provides at the four-spot is a game-changer).

If you peruse the numbers at the top of this preview, you'll notice that, in many categories, Minnesota's rankings stack up reasonably well when compared to those owned by the Rockets. The T-Wolves play with pace, get to the line, and hammer the offensive glass. But the similarities end as soon as you get to the two teams' respective shooting numbers.

Like the Rockets, Minnesota takes a ton of shots from the restricted area. But whereas Houston is a top-10 team when it comes to converting those attempts into points, the Timberwolves reside in the league's bottom-10. Minnesota, meanwhile, is 26th in the NBA in 3-point percentage; the Wolves have shot just a shade better than 34 percent from downtown this season. And amazingly, they've been even worse from the corners where their hit rate of 32.7 percent represents the league's worst from that location.

- Another superficial similarity between the Rockets and Timberwolves: both teams have been exceptional in the first quarter. Houston owns a net rating of +10.4 in the opening period while Minnesota's is +10.3 (those numbers are second and third in the league, respectively, in that category, behind only the San Antonio Borg). But the bane of the T-Wolves' season exists in the fact that Minnesota has been the worst fourth quarter team in the NBA, possessing an abhorrent net rating of -10.3 in the final frame.

Those fourth quarter foibles have had a devastating effect on the Timberwolves' 2013-14 campaign, resulting in a slew of crunch time collapses and close losses that have frequently undermined Minnesota's attempts to worm its way back into the Western Conference playoff chase. Take note, however, that the Wolves are 4-0 in games decided by five points or fewer since March 1. Unfortunately for Minnesota, its late-game luck turned too late.

- Speaking of turnarounds that fall into the 'too little, too late' category, Ricky Rubio is shooting better than 46 percent from the field so far in April while averaging 16.6 points per game (his season averages: 9.4 points per contest on 38.4 percent shooting). There is of course still tons of time for Rubio to meet all the promise and potential his talent suggested when he first entered the league. He's an excellent defender for his position and his passing prowess and creativity defy description the vast majority of the time. But for him and his team to take the next step, he simply has to become a better shooter.

When Rubio is a threat to score, as he has been this month, the entire dynamic of Minnesota's offense changes. Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, such stretches have been few and far between thus far. Per Elias, no other NBA player besides Rubio (career 36.9 field goal percentage) has a field goal percentage below 39 percent since the 2011-12 season (minimum: 1000 field goal attempts). And his lack of finishing touch looms as a large reason why only the Lakers and Wizards have seen their pick-and-roll ball-handlers score less efficiently than have the Timberwolves', per Synergy Sports.

- One of the silver linings of Minnesota's season has been the recent emergence of rookie Gorgui Dieng. The Louisville product has averaged 11.8 points and 10.9 rebounds per game since he became a fixture in the Timberwolves' rotation beginning March 16. And Rockets fans no doubt recall that Dieng racked up 21 points and 22 boards the last time these two teams met.

The sample size is still small, but it's notable that Minnesota's defensive rating with Dieng on the floor the past month has been a very respectable 102.6 while the Wolves have produced a cataclysmic mark of 111.0 when he sits. That said, it's also noteworthy that even Dieng's length and rim protection haven't been able to curtail opponents' ability to feast upon the Timberwolves' interior D. Only the Kings (65 percent) have allowed a higher hit rate from the restricted area this season than does Minnesota (64.9 percent), and since that March 16 date and Dieng's subsequent insertion into the rotation, Minnesota is still allowing its foes to knock down 65 percent of those shot attempts.

- Minnesota fouls less frequently than does any team in league. That allergy to hacking has manifested itself in Houston's three games against the Timberwolves, as the Rockets have attempted around 18 free throws per contest – a considerable drop-off given that Houston leads the league by averaging 31 freebies a game.

- After adjusting for pace, Minnesota stands in the league's top-5 in terms of points scored off of turnovers (related: leak-out king Corey Brewer has racked up at least four steals in each of his last three games) and second chance points per game. The T-Wolves are also top-10 in terms of fast break and paint point scoring.

On the other end of the floor, Minnesota excels at limiting its opponents' points off turnovers and second chance points.

In the spotlight

Houston has shot the 3-ball exceptionally well versus Minnesota this season, connecting from beyond the arc at a rate of nearly 46 percent. All told, Houston has hit 44 triples in its three games against the Timberwolves, putting them in range of the franchise record for most 3-pointers made against a particular team in a single season (57 – accomplished against the Warriors a season ago). The league record in that category, per Elias, is 59 and it's been done three times, most recently by the Knicks last season against the Heat.

Injury Update

Pat Beverley (right knee sprain) and Dwight Howard (left ankle strain) are out and remain day-to-day.

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