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Preview: Rockets vs. Timberwolves

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

HOUSTON - Setting the scene for Houston’s matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves:

The Basics:

Minnesota Timberwolves (34-32) at Houston Rockets (45-22)

Point Differential:

Minnesota: +3.6 (NBA rank: 9th)

Houston: +4.7 (NBA rank: T-6th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Minnesota: 105.5 (9th)

Houston: 108.1 (6th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Minnesota: 103.2 (T-12th)

Houston: 102.4 (10th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Minnesota: 99.75 (4th)

Houston: 98.16 (8th)

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: 48.2% (T-23rd)

Houston: 53.2% (3rd)

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

Minnesota: 13.4 (2nd)

Houston: 16.7 (29th)

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

Minnesota: 50.6% (T-13th); offensive rebound rate: 27.4% (12th); defensive rebound rate: 75.3% (12th)

Houston: 52.1% (4th); offensive rebound rate: 27.7% (T-5th); defensive rebound rate: 73.6% (T-20th)

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: .319 (4th)

Houston: .391 (1st)

One of the many things that makes March Madness such a manic, muddled, beautiful mess is the raw desperation that manifests itself on the court while the three-week tournament runs its course. The purity of that emotion magnifies every shot and every possession as each team pours its heart and soul into surviving the do-or-die affair.

That desperation is a feeling the Minnesota Timberwolves know all too well these days, and it is one of the many reasons why the Rockets must be exceedingly wary heading into tonight’s matchup. The cold, hard truth for the Timberwolves: This morning found them owning about a six percent chance to make the playoffs with the very strong likelihood that they would probably need to go 14-2 – and perhaps even 15-1 – over the course of their remaining 16 games to have a realistic shot at qualifying for postseason play. Oh, and their schedule the rest of the way is not at all kind or favorable in that regard.

But here’s the thing: This Minnesota team has forever teased and hinted that it possesses the talent and necessary pieces to go on just such an extended run. Its statistical profile suggests it boasts the stuff of a squad that should be fighting for 50 wins, rather than simply struggling to stay above .500.

And yet, here they are. After last night’s overtime victory in Dallas, the Wolves are two games above the .500 mark for the first time since November 23. That date found Minnesota in Houston, playing the second night of a back-to-back (Minnesota, by the way, is just 4-11 in such situations this season, and a lowly 1-9 when the second game is played on the road) after recording a win over Brooklyn the night before. The Rockets went wire-to-wire en route to winning 112-101. And it’s taken the T-Wolves nearly four, long and laborious months to return to that humble plateau.

So yes, they are beyond desperate these days. And that, in turn, makes them exceedingly dangerous. On the day that a tournament synonymous with big upsets borne of desperation begins, the Rockets must be mindful in order to ensure that they do not fall victim to one of their own. 

Know Thy Enemy

- Tonight’s matchup pits the league’s two best first quarter teams against each other, based on their respective net ratings in the period (Houston’s is +11.4; Minnesota’s is +10.9). What has consistently killed the Timberwolves this season is their well-publicized breakdowns in the final frame. Rather remarkably, only Detroit owns a worse fourth quarter net rating than does Minnesota (-9.5). As a result, the Timberwolves are just 4-12 this season in games decided by four points or fewer, though it is worth noting that they have won two such games in a row, including last night’s 123-122 overtime thriller over Dallas (a game, by the way, that predictably saw Minnesota get outscored 26-19 in the fourth quarter).

- By now the basketball world has caught on to the brilliance of Kevin Love. He ranks third in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating (behind some guys who go by the names Durant and James, respectively), he’s second in the league in rebounds per game, and fourth overall in scoring average.

But no number more accurately reveals his importance to the Timberwolves than does the disparity in the club’s offensive rating when he plays versus when he’s on the bench grabbing a breather. During the 2,306 minutes Love has been on the floor this season, Minnesota’s offense has scored at a rate of 109.5 points per 100 possessions – a mark that would rank second in the NBA, just a shade behind Miami’s No. 1 overall offense. When he’s on the sideline, however, that number plummets all the way to 94.0 – a rating worse than that posted by the cellar-dwelling 76ers.

Love, by the way, is averaging 29 points and 12.5 rebounds per game against the Rockets this season.

- Minnesota ranks sixth in the league in both pace-adjusted points off turnovers and second chance points scored. Related: In their two meetings against Houston this season, the Timberwolves have racked up 35 second chance points combined and forced the Rockets into more than 21 turnovers per game.

- Minnesota’s inability to consistently space the floor has been their Achilles’ heel all season long. The Wolves are just 26th in the league in 3-point percentage, and 29th overall in their hit rate from the corners, where they are shooting just 31 percent.

The 3-point line has loomed large in Houston’s two wins over Minnesota this season; the Rockets have knocked down 28-of-58 (.483) from beyond the arc in those contests while the T-Wolves have hit just 14-of-51 (.275). J.J. Barea has been particularly errant in his attempts from downtown; his 2-of-19 mark from the field against Houston this season includes a 1-of-9 blemish from 3.

- Minnesota fouls less frequently than does any other team in the NBA. Houston has taken 36 free throws combined in its two games against the Timberwolves this season. For perspective, take note that the Rockets average more than 31 free throw attempts per contest.

- Due to their solid rebounding and superior ball security, the T-Wolves are very good at limiting points off turnovers and second chance points. Where they really struggle, however, is in rim protection; Minnesota’s opponents have hit a whopping 65 percent of their shots from within the restricted area – the worst such mark in the league.

In the spotlight

With both teams likely to take the floor tonight without their starting centers (Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic is considered doubtful and Houston’s Dwight Howard has already been ruled out – both with ankle issues), the spotlight shines on a pair of back-up centers who have performed admirably in relief roles this week.

Rookie Gorgui Dieng is coming off back-to-back double-double showings – the first two of his young career, in fact. Omer Asik, meanwhile, was a double-double machine throughout all of last season and he reprised that routine Monday night during Houston’s lopsided win over Utah.

The Rockets never hit the glass better than they do when Asik in on the floor as their defensive rebound rate and overall rebound rate reach their highest levels when the 27-year-old center is playing. His presence, then, figures to loom especially large tonight as Houston attempts to limit Minnesota’s second chance opportunities while creating transition scoring chances of their own – the latter half of that equation proving especially vital as the Rockets seek to run the floor and push the pace against a Timberwolves team that had to work overtime last night in Dallas.  

Injury Update

Dwight Howard (ankle) and Greg Smith (knee) are out.

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