It only took 82 games for the playoff picture to be set, and as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers--I mean the Rockets bench tipped off against the Sacramento Kings, it was finally determined that Houston would be facing the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves snapped a 14-year playoff drought with their win Wednesday night, and the reward for their efforts will be a Rockets team that didn't just sweep them in the regular season, they were blown out in almost every contest.
In four matchups the Rockets swept the Timberwolves, averaging 123 points per games to Minnesota's 107 points per game. As we await the start of the postseason, let's take a look at the position by position matchups.
Point Guard: Chris Paul versus Jeff Teague
Chris Paul's ability to create his own shot commands opposing defenses to remain honest instead of shading over to shut James Harden down. Add in the fact that he's been creating shots for teammates long before Harden finished this season third in the league in assists, and you have a dangerous backcourt that can drive and score or rain it from deep.
Jeff Teague is a capable scorer but is used more as a facilitator in a lineup that features far more firepower in other positions.
Shooting Guard: James Harden versus Jimmy Butler
Expect Jimmy Butler to get his during the series offensively, but he's not James Harden. Harden, a practical lock to secure his first MVP award, will be the deciding factor in not only this series, but the entire playoffs. Previous playoff appearances featuring a much more overused and exhausted Harden have left a bad taste in Rockets fans’ mouths, as his performance has tended to drop sharply. Much more attention has been paid to keeping his minutes down and focusing on rest, so this postseason should hopefully not be a repeat.
Either way, Jimmy Buckets doesn't take James Buckets in this matchup.
Small Forward: Trevor Ariza versus Andrew Wiggins
Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins definitely wins the athletic category running away, and his continued scoring ability development overshadows Ariza’s. Ariza, however is not meant to be the offensive focus of the Rockets. You point Ariza at a player, and Ariza shuts that player down defensively, while knocking down open threes created by Harden and Paul. Wiggins will score more than Ariza, but Ariza’s defensive presence will make up for it.
Power Forward: P.J. Tucker versus Taj Gibson
P.J. Tucker is a stocky small forward whose relentless defense and three point shooting ability earned him the starting role over Ryan Anderson late in the season. Taj Gibson is a much more prototypical power forward, with a nasty defensive streak. So while Tucker may beat him on fast breaks and help stretch the defense, Gibson's size will be a lot for Tucker to handle. He'll have to channel his inner Chuck Hayes this series to help neutralize Gibson's above average inside presence.
Center: Clint Capela versus Karl Anthony-Towns
Clint Capela has cemented himself as an integral part of what the Rockets do on both sides of the ball. He's an athletic center that understands his role offensively and serves as the Rockets’ primary post defender--a role he has excelled in this season. He is in essence a role player at this moment and on this team, but his presence is much more impactful than that term implies.
Karl Anthony-Towns, however, is an absolute freak of nature. Seemingly developed in a lab to embody the perfect center, KAT will be an absolute handful to contain. He's more athletic than most wings, and has the size and length to dominate the paint on both ends of the court. Capela will honestly only be expected to try his best, because KAT will be coming to Houston hungry.
Bench advantage: Houston
The Timberwolves have Jamal Crawford who is still a handful off the bench, but aside from that, the bench simply does not stand out.
The Rockets, even without Luc Mbah a Moute, feature plenty of firepower. Aside from reigning Sixth Man of the year, Eric Gordon, Houston will throw a scrappy Gerald Green, three-point threat Ryan Anderson, and the veteran center Nene--whom the Rockets have done their best to keep fresh for the postseason--at the Timberwolves for 48 minutes. This is where the Rockets will impose their will.
The Rockets are simply too talented and too deep to lose to this promising young Timberwolves team. From a position by position breakdown it may seem closer than it is, but the difference is that the positions that the Rockets are superior in, they are exponentially more superior.
Prediction: Rockets in five