Monday’s Playoff Essentials

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Playoff Results | Playoff Projections

Western Conference First Round - Game 4 - Rockets lead 2-1
Houston (-5.5/218) at Minnesota, TNT, 8:05 p.m. ET

After failing to even put up a field goal attempt for the final 30 minutes of a 20-point Game 2 loss in Houston, Karl-Anthony Towns was under the microscope on Saturday night as Minneapolis’ Target Center hosted its first playoff game in 14 years.

The All-Star forward ended up leading the Timberwolves in rebounds (16) and blocked shots (2) while getting to the free-throw line a team-best seven times in contributing to an impressive 121-105 upset of the top-seeded Rockets. That he wasn’t the primary reason his team won, cashing as a 6-point underdog and +210 money-line winner, was an even better sign.

Jimmy Butler led the way with 28 points in 41 minutes while providing his typically stifling defense, while point guards Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose combined for another 40 points as catalysts who helped put the game away with electric play in the second half.

For at least one night, head coach Tom Thibodeau found the right combination, one rooted in his past with the Bulls. Butler and Rose, combined with the young phenoms he inherited and Teague, the point guard he recruited to be his Rose on this team, badly outplayed a Rockets team that looked stuck in the mud, especially by their standards.

Is it possible to replicate that roughly 48 hours later? Well, how do you feel about relying on Rose again?

He hasn’t scored in double-digits in consecutive games since the first week in November, back when he was starting to find a rhythm next to LeBron James with a Cavs squad that could use him right about now. It’s obvious he’s a major part of Thibodeau’s game plan in this series and looks spry, shooting just under 50 percent from the field while averaging 14 points over the first three games, which includes a 3-for-5 showing from beyond the arc.

Teague played his best game in weeks in shooting 9-for-14 on Saturday night, finishing with eight assists and most important, only one turnover. The fact he’d accumulated nine through the first two games was one overlooked reason why the Timberwolves looked so helpless on the road, but there’s no denying he looked like a different player in Game 3.

With Teague and Rose looking to compete in their matchup against Chris Paul and Butler looking to keep Harden from finding his flow, the Timberwolves do have players physically capable of making a dent in place. They can get the job done. It remains to be seen whether they will.

Chris David of was impressed with Minnesota’s performance on Saturday but is hesitant to back them again in Game 4.

“I wasn’t surprised the T-Wolves put up a crooked number in Game 3 but how they did it was a tad startling as they hit 15 bombs from distance, which was their second-best performance from 3-point land this season,” David explained. “I still believe Minnesota goes as Towns goes and while he was better on the glass Saturday, he’s not playing to his All-Star status. The Timberwolves are averaging 106 PPG after scoring 120 or more this season and an expected drop-off from their offense is expected in Game 4.”

As David pointed out, Towns still hasn’t looked like his normal self with Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker and Nene all taking turns keeping him from getting going. If he’s finally able to find a rhythm, Minnesota would really have an opportunity to even this series up.

Houston blocked just three shots in Game 3 after combining for 17 in the first two games, so the Timberwolves were certainly able to make some waves in creating space and executing better. VI’s David is of the opinion that the West’s top seed has proven resilient when it has come across adversity.

“Another angle that could have you fading Minnesota is Houston’s ability to rebound. Since the New Year, the Rockets have gone 7-1 off a loss and they’ve held opponents to 100.1 PPG. A lot of bettors fall into the trap that Houston isn’t a great defensive team but they’re the most improved team this season in scoring,” David said. “The total seems a tad inflated and the value for me is with Minnesota’s Team Total Under (106 ½) on Monday.”

Butler is expected to play and was effective despite falling to the floor with a scary-looking injury in the first half on Saturday. He’s slowed down Harden, who has shot just 11-for-39 from the field since opening the series with a 44-point explosion. Harden looks like he’s missing a step and has shot 4-for-18 from 3-point range over the past two games.

He and Paul are two of the NBA’s top free-throw shooters, which is important since a 5.5-point spread isn’t budging.

Western Conference First Round - Game 4 - Jazz lead 2-1
Oklahoma City at Utah (-5.5/209.5), TNT, 10:35 p.m. ET

Utah’s Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell have gotten the better of reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, which is why the No. 4 seed is trailing in the series and in an underdog role that puts it in danger of falling down 3-1.

Rubio so clearly got the better of their matchup in Game 3 that the brash OKC guard guaranteed that wouldn’t happen again on Monday, vowing to shut him down.

Game on.

After landing Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to pair with Westbrook, the expectation that this team would compete for a championship has made them look to be underachievers all season since we’ve largely been waiting on things to click. Losing top perimeter defender Andre Roberson was a major blow, but the Thunder are about to become a major disappointment if they fail to get out of the first round against a young Jazz team being led by a rookie.

Mitchell has been special all season but has really turned it up down the stretch, dominating since the All-Star break to help Utah nearly catch Portland for the Northwest Division title, earning the No. 5 seed. He averaged 23.0 points in March, 22.2 to close the regular season this month.

In this series, he’s averaged 25.7 points and 9.0 rebounds despite coming in with a foot contusion that had his availability for Game 1 in question. Rubio is shooting under 40 percent but averaging 20 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8 assists and 2.3 steals.

Westbrook is shooting 36 percent, averaging a triple-double (20.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists) but leaving a lot of plays out there due to a lack of efficiency due to a shooting stroke that has failed him. He’s 3-for-11 from 3-point range in the series, so it’s become a victory for the Jazz defense when they get him to settle for one. Westbrook has been mired in a horrific shooting slump for weeks now, so there’s no question the strategy will remain to keep him from attacking the rim.

Rudy Gobert’s presence in the paint has also been a huge factor over the last two games, especially since Derrick Favors has answered the bell in the series. Steven Adams’ impact has been limited as a result, and the OKC center failed to come up with an offensive board in Game 3, managing just two defensive rebounds in 26 minutes. Patrick Patterson came in to offer a small-ball look and drained two 3-pointers, but the Thunder don’t appear to have many consistent answers against Utah’s edge in size.

Another major issue for the Thunder entering this game has been their inability to respond away from home in the postseason. A loss in tonight’s Game 4 would be their eighth consecutive road playoff loss, which would set a new mark for futility in franchise history, matching something done by the SuperSonics three decades ago.

Westbrook has proven ineffective in calling his own number in the fourth quarter or doing his job as the point guard to ensure at least one of his teammates finds a rhythm. He, George and Anthony are a combined 3-for-21 from the field in the fourth quarter of both losses suffered in the series, which will obviously have to change to get out of Salt Lake City with a split.

The Thunder did win their last three regular-season road games at New Orleans, Houston and Miami, turning it on to ensure their postseason spot. They’re still capable of getting back in this series and have have settled on a bench rotation that isn’t a liability despite being short-handed. Whether they can scratch back into this series depends on whether Westbrook can come through on his word.

He’s got to be better than he’s shown. OKC opened as a 5.5-point underdog and remains there across the board. An upset will fetch +210 on the money line, while the total has dipped slightly in some spots, from 210.5 to 209.5, consistent with where it has resided throughout the series.

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