In the first two games of their playoff series against the Rockets, the Wolves have had to face down an unusual culprit—their offense.
Minnesota has held the usually scintillating Houston attack to 104 and 102 points in Game 1 and Game 2 respectively, but the Wolves put up just 101 points in their first effort and only 82 in their second. It’s a frustrating situation; maligned for their defense for much of the year, the team has put the pieces together against the best offensive team in the league, but as they shore up what has been their biggest weakness, their strength on the other side of the ball has seemingly deserted them.
But not all is as bad as it seems. Returning home to Target Center, where the Wolves have played very well this year, the team is confident that it can find the energy to fix its struggling attack. This team isn’t exactly known for their transition play, but the Wolves believe that picking up the pace and trying to run more—especially with the energy of the Target Center crowd behind them—could be a key piece of the puzzle in restoring their offensive mojo.
“We have to play with a great intensity and a great energy on both ends of the floor,” said coach Tom Thibodeau. “We’ve got to play in transition, get some turnovers and get in the open floor and get easy buckets.”
The Wolves were among the NBA’s best in scoring points off turnovers this year, but in this truly bizarre series, that strength has also lapsed. Luckily, the defense is in place, Minnesota just needs to get better at capitalizing on their hard work.
“You got to fight fire with fire,” said Jeff Teague. “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 I think we’ll have a better game.”
The narratives swirling around this series have justifiably focused on the play of Karl-Anthony Towns, who has had two of his worst outings of the season in the Wolves’ last two games. Houston has made stopping Towns priority number 1A, and so far, it has worked.
Breaking Towns out of his funk is about more than just getting him the ball. Too often, Houston has baited the Wolves into feeding the big man down low, then immediately doubled, forcing impossible shots or cutting off Towns’ passing lanes.
As the team’s point guard, Teague has taken note, and he understands as well as anyone that the Wolves can’t just get Towns the ball and expect him to score—they need to put him in a position to succeed.
“You got to attack fast,” he said. “Instead of just eyeing KAT down in the post and trying to get him the ball, we got to make plays and multiple efforts—swinging the ball, driving it, and then if he still has a little on him in the paint, try to get it to him, instead of just eyeing him down, and eyeing him down. It plays into the shot clock and then when he finally gets it, there’s a double coming, and we have to throw up some miracle shot at the end of the shot clock—it’s not working for us.”
Teams always talk about taking what the defense gives them, but if Houston continues to take away Towns, the Wolves will fight back. They’re not going to let another team come into their building and neutralize one of their All Stars. If this requires changing how they’ve been running their offense, so be it.
“[When] we get the rebound [Towns] has got to take off, try to bury the guys down, cause they’re coming,” said Teague. “They’re coming to double, and he knows that. He’s got to face up, be strong with the ball, make quick moves, but we got to figure out how to get him out and run and get some easy touches in the paint.”
“They’re committing a lot of players to him,” Thibodeau said. “Any time a team does that that’s when you have to trust the pass, you’ve got to play with energy, you have to beat people down the floor, keep moving.”
Thibodeau, not the most effusive coach in the league, had praise after practice on Friday for the resolve this team has shown—but despite their 0-2 hole, he is in no way ready to concede this series:
“I know how hard this team has worked and fought to make it, we’re trying to erase fourteen years of losing, that’s not an easy thing to do. This team has fought like crazy all year…I’m proud of what they’ve done and now our challenge is to win this next game.”
X’s and O’s aside, the Wolves are excited to play the franchise’s first home playoff game in 14 years and expect great things from the Minnesota crowd.
“It’s going to be great,” said Towns. “This organization and all our fans, they deserve this moment. I said before the playoffs, this is bigger than just us, this is about our fans, this is about Minnesota.”