Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins had a rough introduction to the playoffs. Neither played particularly well in Games 1 and 2 of their first-round series with Houston, with many of the issues that plagued them during an up-and-down regular season rearing their head. Towns and Wiggins stepped up in a 121-105 victory in Game 3, and they will have to play even better to have any chance of upsetting the Rockets. More important than the outcome of this series, though, are the lessons that Minnesota’s two young stars can learn.
Towns has been outplayed by Clint Capela, his less heralded counterpart. His offensive numbers have plummeted across the board. After averaging 21.3 points and 2.4 assists a game on 54.5 percent shooting in the regular season, he is averaging only 10.3 points and 1.7 assists a game on 32.3 percent shooting in the postseason. While the two big men haven’t been playing much one-on-one against each other, Capela has been better in the pick-and-roll on both ends of the floor. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni asks Capela to do more on defense, which gives the team more flexibility.
Houston is switching almost every screen Capela is involved in, trusting that he can stay in front of Minnesota’s guards on the perimeter. Towns, in contrast, is kept in the paint as much as possible, rarely venturing out to guard James Harden or Chris Paul. He’s being asked to plant himself in front of the rim, which gives the Rockets guards a huge runway to attack and plenty of open space to pull up for a jumper. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Towns is giving up an average of 1.036 points per possession as a pick-and-roll defender on 56 plays in the playoffs, putting him in the 18th percentile among players in the postseason.
Towns hasn’t been able to take advantage of Capela switching off him on offense, either. After having Towns float out to the perimeter on those plays in Game 1, the Wolves made a concerted effort to pound the ball inside when he had a smaller defender on him in Games 2 and 3. That strategy hasn’t worked, as Towns is averaging 0.75 points per possession on 16 post-ups in the series, putting him in the 29th percentile of postseason players. He has struggled with the physicality of the Houston defenders, who have been preventing him from establishing deep post position in the lane. Towns isn’t doing a good job of finishing through contact.
The biggest issue for Towns is that the Rockets are sending multiple defenders at him, forcing him to make quick decisions in tight spaces. He’s a gifted passer with the ability to pick apart a defense, but he’s never made playmaking a priority. His career assist-to-turnover ratio is almost exactly 1-to-1, and it’s been more of the same in the postseason, when he has five assists and five turnovers. Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau has made one big adjustment in the series to help Towns read the double-teams: He’s putting smaller and more perimeter-oriented players around him to open up the floor.
Everything is connected for Towns. The smaller lineups that give him more freedom on offense and demand more from him on defense. Taj Gibson, their starting power forward, is essentially a pair of training wheels for their young center. Gibson is a tough-minded veteran who never misses a defensive rotation and can slide his feet on the perimeter, but he’s also a poor outside shooter who clogs up the lane and allows Houston to pack the paint. According to NBA.com/Stats, lineups where Towns is the only big man on the floor have an eye-popping offensive rating of 113.7 in 27 minutes in the series. The problem is that they have an equally gruesome defensive rating of 120.0.
The Wolves went with the same small-ball lineup at the start of the second quarters in Games 2 and 3, with Jimmy Butler playing as the 4 next to Towns. It backfired in Game 2, as Houston went on a 17-7 run and gave themselves a lead they would never relinquish. In Game 3, though, that same lineup was one of the keys to the Minnesota victory. The difference? Instead of bailing out the defense by settling for jumpers and hanging out on the perimeter like he did the first time around, Towns went right at Capela the second time around, getting to the rim, drawing double-teams, and kicking the ball out to open shooters. He finished Game 3 with 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting, 16 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks.
Wiggins, like Towns, had his best performance of the series in Game 3, with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting, five rebounds, and five assists. The Rockets had been daring the Wolves’ supporting cast to knock down open shots, and Wiggins went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. Even more encouraging was his passing. Wiggins had five assists and one turnover on Saturday after racking up four assists and five turnovers in Games 1 and 2. Like Towns, Wiggins benefited from playing in smaller lineups. There was nothing complex about his performance. He was just making simple plays: attacking closeouts, driving the ball into open spaces, and finding the open man.
It was the type of complementary role that Wiggins had struggled with all season. The additions of Butler and Jeff Teague forced him to play more off the ball than he’s ever had to before. Efficiency and usage are usually inversely correlated: The more a player is used in the offense, the less efficient they become. The exact opposite happened with Wiggins. He had a career-low true shooting percentage this season (50.5) even though his usage rate declined by 5.6 points from last season. There were whispers that he wanted out only a few months after signing a massive five-year deal worth $146 million.
At 6-foot-8 and 202 pounds, Wiggins has one of the best combinations of size and speed in the entire league, but his physical tools have not always translated to the court. He has trouble impacting the game when the ball isn’t in his hands. He’s an inconsistent shooter who can become a passive observer when he’s not involved in the offense and whose effort level comes and goes on defense. Rebounding is where the issue is most apparent. Wiggins was eighth on the Wolves in rebound rate this season at 6.9 percent, even though there were plenty of available boards for an elite athlete like him to grab. They were 24th in the NBA in total rebounds and 27th in defensive rebounds.
Wiggins has the opportunity to make an even bigger impact in the series going forward. The Rockets miss the injured Luc Mbah a Moute. With Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker, their best two perimeter defenders, in the starting lineup, Houston has no one who can replace Mbah a Moute on the second unit. Wiggins had a lot of success at the end of the first and third quarters in Game 3, when he was matched up with Gerald Green and Eric Gordon, neither of whom has the size to defend him. Butler is drawing Houston’s best defenders, and the rest of their defense is keying on Towns. Wiggins has to step up and make them pay.
Minnesota could also use a more engaged version of Wiggins on defense. The team has been hiding him on Ariza at the start of games, while putting Teague and Butler on Paul and Harden, respectively. In an ideal world, Thibodeau would flip those defensive assignments, since Wiggins is significantly faster than either of his veteran teammates, and he has less ballhandling responsibility on offense. Wiggins, like Towns, has focused on offense so far in his NBA career, but he has all the tools to be an elite defender. He has held up decently in the pick-and-roll in this series, giving up 0.832 points per possession on 16 plays, which puts him in the 53rd percentile.
The best version of the Wolves would have Wiggins and Towns switching every screen and wreaking havoc on defense. That was the plan when they hired Thibodeau, who had a reputation as a defensive mastermind, two years ago. Instead, he’s had to develop game plans that hide his two young stars on defense as much as possible. Through the first three games of the series, Minnesota’s defensive rating is 26.2 points lower without Towns and 8.0 points lower without Wiggins. While few young players excel on defense, the success of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia is proof that it is possible. Towns and Wiggins can be just as good as those two on that side of the ball.
The bloom is off the rose a bit for the two former no. 1 overall picks who were once considered the most promising young duo in the sport. They have taken a step back on offense this season and they haven’t done anything on defense to compensate. All that can change in this series. Minnesota is far more talented than a typical no. 8 seed. They closed out Game 3 with a lineup that could give the Rockets trouble: Towns at the 5, Butler at the 4, and Wiggins at the 3. Butler, a 28-year-old in the prime of his career, is an elite two-way player. He does most of the heavy lifting. The Wolves just need their young stars to knock down open shots, set up their teammates, and make plays on defense. If Wiggins and Towns can become complete basketball players, Minnesota can play with anyone.