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RandBall Michael Rand

If you think the Timberwolves are going to get swept by the Houston Rockets, think again. Here are three reasons the playoff series starting Sunday could be much closer than expected:

• First, when it comes to proving themselves in the playoffs, the Rockets are not the Golden State Warriors. James Harden has played in one NBA Finals and doesn’t have a ring. In five previous years in Houston, Harden’s Rockets have been one-and-done three times in the playoffs. Chris Paul reached the postseason nine previous times in his career. His teams were bounced in the first round five times, and the other four they lost in the second round.

• Second, the Rockets are expected to be without forward Luc Mbah a Moute for the series after he dislocated his shoulder Tuesday night.

He’s no Harden or Paul, but Mbah a Moute played a strong supporting role in all four Rockets wins over the Wolves this year. The Rockets are just 13-8 without him (52-9 with him).

• Third, there are generous gaps in the schedule — playing right into Tom Thibodeau’s tight rotations and heavy minutes. There were two off days before Game 1, two more before Game 2 and two more before Game 3.

That gives Jimmy Butler — who was inactive for one game vs. Houston and was hurt during another — more time to rest and recover after his late-season comeback. The Wolves are 37-22 with Butler this year and 10-13 without him.

I’m not saying the Wolves are going to win. But it wouldn’t stun me if this series goes six games or more.

Michael Rand is the senior digital writer for Star Tribune sports and keeper of the RandBall blog at startribune.com/RandBall.

As I was looking over the potential playoff scenarios this week, I kept looking at the ways the Timberwolves could avoid the Rockets — because that matchup meant the likelihood of a four- or five-game exit for the Wolves.

I can’t shake how helpless the Wolves looked at times against the Rockets.

If they were playing the Warriors, who are without Stephen Curry, I would have given them a puncher’s chance of winning the series. But the Rockets? The team with the most efficient offense in the NBA against a Wolves defense that has struggled all season? No chance. Or at least an infinitesimally small one.

In their four wins over the Wolves, the Rockets shot 43.4 percent from three-point range. Of particular concern is the Wolves’ defensive rebounding percentage against the Rockets, which is .736. That means the Wolves grabbed that percentage of all available defensive rebounds. For reference, that mark is well behind the Magic, which was last in the league at .756 percent.

So if the Rockets missed a three-pointer, they stood a good chance of gaining the rebound and reloading from deep again if they wanted.

For the Wolves to win this series, the defense suddenly has to transform into a top-five unit and the leaky rebounding has to stop.

I just don’t see the Wolves being able to do that because it would require their becoming a team they haven’t been in the other 82 games this season.

Chris Hine is the lead writer for North Score, the Star Tribune’s sports analytics beat. Find his stories at startribune.com/northscore.