In the aftermath of the Wolves’ 104-101 loss to the heavily favored Rockets in Game 1 of the playoffs Sunday — Minnesota’s first playoff game in 14 years — there were a lot of BIG OPINIONS.
You could trash the Wolves for letting a winnable game slip away against a Rockets team that did not shoot up to its standards. You could be encouraged by the Wolves’ fight and defensive strategy in a competitive game. You could loudly scream that there are NO MORAL VICTORIES.
If this was the legislature, though, there would be at least one bill that had bipartisan support between the positive and negative folks: Karl-Anthony Towns needs to be more involved. He himself needs to be more active. The Wolves need to get him the ball more. That he attempted just nine shots — fewer than Derrick Rose and Jamal Crawford — is a confounding issue.
If you went to Charles Barkley for a nuanced discussion of this issue, though, you would instead be left with severe burns from his hot take. Talking about the Wolves, Barkley said, “They’ve got to be one of the dumbest teams I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“They’ve got to be one of the dumbest teams I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Tell us how you really feel, Chuck… �� pic.twitter.com/PWyXgbJB6v
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 16, 2018
The basis for this heat was how the Wolves used Towns in Game 1. Barkley continued: “The Houston Rockets switch every pick and roll. There’s mismatches all over the floor. They never take advantage of any mismatches.”
At which point Shaq jumped in and said, “They don’t want their coach to get mad and start yelling.”
Undeterred, Sir Charles plowed ahead: “There was five or six times where the switched Chris Paul to big KAT and so they put the guard had (Clint) Capela out on the floor. (Towns) cleared out instead of getting Chris Paul or James Harden down on the box, he cleared out to let the point guard go one-on-one. That’s not good basketball.”
But hey, guess what? It’s more nuanced than that! Let’s take a deeper look:
*First, although Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said of Towns postgame, “He’s got to be more active,” it also sure looked like some of what happened last night was by design. No, the Wolves probably did NOT go into the game hoping that Rose’s usage rate would be twice as high as that of Towns or Jimmy Butler, but the Wolves seemed to want the matchup they were getting with a smaller player guarded by a big on the switch more than they wanted Towns to post up a smaller player. And part of what was happening was by the Rockets’ design. They were determined not to let Towns beat them with three-pointers. They simply switched and took their chances that Towns couldn’t beat them enough on post-ups.
*Here’s where we could get down a dangerous rabbit hole on the question, “Are post-ups efficient or inefficient.” Long story short from this excellent Grantland (RIP piece) piece from 2013: They are inefficient if the resulting shot ends up being any sort of short- or mid-range jump shot that isn’t at the rim. They are efficient if the big man gets a layup, gets fouled or is able to use the threat of scoring as a means to create open threes or layups for teammates.
Towns’ most efficient shots this season (by far) were either at the rim or from three-point range. His eFG was .724 at the rim, .632 from three and less than .500 combined in the in-between spaces.
That said, Houston gave up the fifth-most shots under five feet this season (31 per game), and teams shot 62.9 percent on those shots (ninth-highest in the NBA). So here’s where everyone should find common ground. Thibs is right that Towns needs to be more active. Wolves fans should want Towns to get the ball more. And when he does, Towns needs to exploit those mismatches because he’s great at the rim and the Rockets are vulnerable there. If the Wolves could get a bunch of easy baskets — something they have struggled with this season — they might force the Rockets to rethink their strategy.
BUT: It’s not like the Wolves were getting bad looks when they eschewed the Towns post-up in favor of a guard going at a big. Barkley says it’s “not good basketball,” and this montage of the Wolves going away from Towns concludes, “I’m not even a Wolves fan and I’m heated about this.”
Here’s a compilation of KAT getting a mismatch on the switch and then either slinking to the corner or not getting the ball. Sometimes the guards don’t even look at him. I’m not even a Wolves fan and I’m heated about this. pic.twitter.com/hgyYKcjB7F
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 16, 2018
The compilation, though, shows: 1) Jeff Teague missing a floater; 2) Jimmy Butler finding a cutting Derrick Rose for a three-point play; 3) Butler finding Crawford for a wide open three (make); 4) Rose finding Wiggins for an open three (miss); 5) Crawford taking a long two (miss); 6) Teague having a decent look at a three (miss) and Towns getting the offensive rebound.
So here’s where I land: The Wolves are frustrating to watch at times, but they are far from Barkley’s hysterical “dumbest team.” Their Game 2 adjustment is finding the sweet spot between when to post up Towns when he has a smaller player on him and when to attack with the guard on that switch — who should also have a mismatch in terms of quickness.
Whether it was Towns shrinking in his first playoff game, poor strategy, his teammates not feeding him enough or some combination of all three, we can all agree he needs to do more in Game 2. He probably will. And the Rockets will probably shoot better from three-point range.
It’s a race to four wins, not one.