2018 Playoffs Series Preview: (8) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (1) Houston Rockets

James Harden should win the 2018 League MVP award in compensation for being (arguably) slighted a year ago.

#8 Minnesota Timberwolves at #1 Houston Rockets

Game 1:

Time: 8 PM CT (TNT)
Spread: HOU -11
Total: 216.5

Odds c/o 5dimes

The Houston Rockets finished atop the Western Conference but it collides with one of the better No. 8 seeds in recent history, a young Minnesota Timberwolves team led by Karl-Anthony Towns, coached by one of the league’s masterminds, Tom Thibodeau.

The Rockets are seemingly constructed perfectly for this new era of basketball, a team with two of the league’s best ball distributors surrounded by flame-throwing shooters. The Rockets set an NBA record for threes made in a season, and are the most offensively dominant team not called Golden State in the league.

Even that might be slighting Houston, who now lines up as a true contender following the addition of one of the league’s best point guards ever, Chris Paul. Minnesota has plenty of talent but is not a three-chucking team. How do these very different clubs stack up positionally, and can the outmatched Timberwolves stay in a series against a team as offensively stacked as the Rockets?

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Backcourt: Jeff Teague/Jimmy Butler vs. Chris Paul/James Harden

Jeff Teague is underrated, and Jimmy Butler is one of the best two-way guards in the game. But they pale in comparison to likely MVP James Harden and Chris Paul. Both are future legends. The Timberwolves will merely hope to slow Harden and Paul, who combined for 49.2 points and 16.7 assists per game between them while leading the Rockets to a 65-win season. Harden averaged 30.4 points per game while connecting on 3.7 threes per night, and Houston hit 15.3 threes per game at a 36.2 percent clip team-wide.

Paul played just 58 games this season, but they were mostly stellar ones as he reinvented himself on the Rockets while sharing the ball with another dominant guard. Mike D’Antoni not only made it work but did so arguably perfectly, as the Rockets became a tough defensive team despite that being a prevalent knock against “No D” Antoni. With Houston defending and these two leading it, can even the Warriors slow them down? Maybe, yeah. But Minnesota has scarcely a chance as a poor defensive club, which is why Houston finds itself double-digit favorites in Game 1.

Advantage: Houston, by a gulf

Frontcourts: Andrew Wiggins/Taj Gibson/Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Trevor Ariza/PJ Tucker/Clint Capela

The Minnesota Timberwolves have the best frontcourt player in this matchup with Karl-Anthony Towns being a versatile stretch-5 with immense skills. Towns finished the season averaging 21.3 points (No. 2 on the team), 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.4 blocks per game, and if the Wolves have any advantages in this series, it is KAT. But Clint Capela is a superb defender and double-double machine in his own right, who will probably be in for a max-contract this offseason.

Andrew Wiggins is still a bit heavy on offense, but his 17.7 points per game should increase in the postseason as the Wolves are going to need every bit of his scoring talents to keep pace with Houston. Ariza and Tucker are solid but effective role players, and both are good defenders. Taj Gibson brings toughness, defense and experience to Minnesota at the 4-spot, but even with an edge here at the 3-4-5 spots, Minnesota is still going to have to answer for the league’s best backcourt, and a lot of that will count upon Wiggins playing better defense and KAT simply defending the rim even better than he already has. It all sounds, well, improbable.

Advantage: Minnesota

Benches:

Minnesota has Gorgui Dieng backing up Towns at the 5-spot, and Jamal Crawford and Derrick Rose as its backup guards, but is thin on depth, and still counting on two very devolved talents in Crawford and D-Rose. Houston, alternatively, brings off the sharpshooting Ryan Anderson in addition to Joe Johnson, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green and Nene Hilario. Those five players could arguably beat some the league’s bottom-feeders on their own. Johnson probably still has a few tricks in his bag despite being ancient, and he has been shooting the three well since joining Houston mid-season. Gerald Green can fly and shoot. Houston’s bench is impressive and a huge reason the Rockets led the NBA in wins this year.

Advantage: Houston

The Bottom Line:

No. 8 over No. 1 upsets have only happened twice in league history, and this is doubtful to be the third. Minnesota is a young and promising team, but Houston is just stacked and is a top-10 defensive team in addition to being the league’s best offensive club. This series will be the most lopsided, even with Towns doing all he can to make his first postseason crash.

Prediction: Houston Wins 4-0

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