The Timberwolves might not have entered their first-round matchup with the Rockets with expectations of upsetting the best team in the NBA, but they at least had the talent to make things interesting. With Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves have the star power to compete with any team on a given night. They aren't necessarily surrounded with the ideal talent to maximize their strengths, yet the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford can each be difference-makers in a seven-game series.
Their potential, however, hinges on their two stars, neither of whom have been able to make their mark against the Rockets. Towns in particular has struggled to get going, as he's combined to score 13 points in Games 1 and 2. The All-Star big man was held to less than 10 points in only two games during the regular season, and he's already matched that total in the opening two games of this series. Without his scoring, the Timberwolves simply don't have the offensive firepower needed to hang with a team like the Rockets in the postseason.
It's a surprising turn of events because Towns has developed into one of the elite centers in the NBA with averages of 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.4 blocks per game this season. He's at the forefront of the unicorn movement, with the skills to pick mismatches apart on the low block like a traditional center and the versatility to make plays away from the basket like a guard. In addition to being near the top of the league in post-up efficiency, Towns led all centers in 3-point percentage this season.
There simply aren't many 7-footers in the world who are as comfortable as Towns is playing both inside and outside.
The Rockets play a defensive scheme that should play to Towns' strengths, too. While they were one of the better defensive teams in the league this season, their switch-heavy system sets the table for Towns to attack mismatches in the post, where he's at his most dominant offensively.
Nearly a quarter of his scoring came on the low block this season, and he ranked in the 85.8 percentile with 1.02 points per post-up possessions. Only three players in the entire league finished the regular season with more points in the post than Towns, and Towns had each of them beat in post-up efficiency.
Towns has to get the ball in those positions to make an impact, though. According to NBA.com, Clint Capela has matched up with Towns in more than half of the minutes he's been on the floor against the Rockets in the playoffs and has limited him to only seven field goal attempts, of which Towns has made three.
The fact that Towns has only taken seven shots in those situations is a testament to how well Capela has defended him thus far. Beyond being a tall and athletic center himself, Capela has been physical with Towns around the basket, pushing him as far away from the paint as possible whenever he looks to get the ball in the post.
Throw in the length and explosiveness few centers in the league can match, and Capela has the tools to make Towns' life difficult even when he gets the ball in his sweet spots:
It's a similar case with Nene, who has spent the second-most minutes defending Towns in this series. Nene doesn't have the speed or athleticism Capela does, but he has the strength to battle with Towns in the post and make him catch the ball farther out than he usually would.
As capable as Towns is of making plays for himself off the dribble on face-ups, starting his drive near the 3-point line as opposed to the mid-post gives other defenders time to react and muck up spacing:
The problem is Towns hasn't had much success when he has been put in position to attack a mismatch, either. James Harden and P.J. Tucker have kept him out of the restricted area when he has gone at them in the post, and the Rockets have given them the support they need in those situations by crowding Towns to get the ball out of his hands.
It's something Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau discussed after Game 2.
"When you're doing the things they're doing, which is double-teaming him, he has to play with energy," Thibodeau said. "He's got to run the floor. He's got to get it deep. He did that a couple of times, and it was good.
"You've got to beat them down the floor. You've got to be moving around, offensive rebound, kickout, repost. That's an energy game, and that's what we've got to do."
There have been times where Towns has turned down opportunities to attack smaller defenders in the post to give someone else an opportunity to attack in isolation as well. It happened on back-to-back possessions in Game 1, for example, with Towns choosing to clear out to the perimeter instead of looking to score against Harden and then Trevor Ariza in the post.
There have even been times when the Timberwolves have failed to make the Rockets pay for switching Chris Paul onto him, such as this possession from Game 2:
It's one of the issues of sharing the court with four offensive-minded players in Butler, Wiggins, Teague and Crawford, each of whom generate between a fifth and a quarter of their offense in isolation.
Whereas all the switching gives Towns an opportunity to attack mismatches in the post, it also gives them an opportunity to attack mismatches from the perimeter - the reason the Timberwolves have attempted more shots out of isolation than any other team through two games of the playoffs - making it all too easy for Towns to fall back into being a spot-up shooter.
As a result, Towns has seen his usage rating and shots per game fall off a cliff in the playoffs. Without anyone else stepping up in his absence, it's no surprise that the Timberwolves now find themselves down 0-2 heading into Game 3 on Saturday.