HOUSTON — At first blush the Minnesota Timberwolves got what they wanted in Game 1 on Sunday Rick Leonard Color Rush Jersey , limiting the Houston Rockets to a substandard shooting performance from the perimeter after being overrun by a hail of 3-pointers while being dismantled in all four regular-season meetings.
But what went wrong proved costly for Minnesota. Despite the sound strategy of running multiple bodies in the direction of Rockets All-Star guard James Harden, the Timberwolves’ defense resembled a sieve as Harden produced 44 points and eight assists in a 104-101 victory.
If the Timberwolves can again harass Houston into 10-for-37 shooting from behind the arc on Wednesday at Toyota Center in Game 2 of this Western Conference first-round playoff series, they will have met one of their primary objectives. However, preventing Harden from torching their defense is a game plan that must be executed in concert with blanketing the 3-point line.
“It’s got to be a lot better,” said Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler, who drew the primary assignment on Harden. “I’ve got to do my job more effectively. What do you want: a free throw, a 3-pointer, a layup? He got whatever he wanted in that game and I’ve got to be better at taking it away.
“He’s a (heck) of a player; everybody knows that. But you don’t just guard him with one guy, it’s everybody out there. Everybody has to be in the correct position to challenge shots, contest him at the rim. If there is a miss we’ve got to get the rebound and take off the other way. But we didn’t do any of that. We’ve got to be better on Wednesday.”
Another goal for Minnesota is to unlock a method to better utilize the supreme talents of All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns on offense. Towns was second on the team in scoring during the regular season, averaging 21.3 points while attempting 14.3 shots per game. In the series opener, he tallied eight points on nine shots and was unable to take advantage of the situation when he occasionally worked against smaller defenders in the Rockets’ switch-oriented defense.
The Timberwolves nearly overcame Towns’ lack of production by relying on a multitude of contributors. Five players scored in double figures led by Andrew Wiggins‘ 18 points and the combined 28 points from the starting backcourt of Jeff Teague and Butler. Reserves Jamal Crawford and Derrick Rose totaled 31 points on 11-of-25 shooting to provide needed balance.
“The important thing is it’s not a one-on-one game, and so everyone has to understand that,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. “If they’re going to double team that means it’s going to be easy for other people and if they’re going to switch we have to make the right reads. If we’re making the right play the game will tell you who’s going to get the shots. And as long as we take good shots then I think we’re going to score.”
Per usual, the Rockets shook off their poor shooting as an anomaly and relished their ability to thrive in the paint instead. Houston outpaced the bigger Timberwolves 54-44 on paint points with Harden feasting both on driving layups and pinpoint passes to center Clint Capela Clive Walford Jersey Elite , who finished 10 of 15 for 24 points. Harden produced six layups or dunks and assisted on six more, fueling an offense often described as 3-point depended yet again proved versatile and efficient.
“I think every single night we take what the defense gives us,” Harden said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t knock down the 3-ball — Game 2 that will be different — but just getting to the basket, finishing, not only myself but Chris (Paul), Clint, the entire team. We’re not going to try to force anything. We’re going to take what they give us and have confidence in our shot. That’s all we’ve been doing and that’s the reason why we’re here.”
With many NFL teams using a running back by committee approach, the "bell cow" back who carries the ball 20 times per game has become a hot commodity in fantasy football.
According to consensus draft rankings in point-per-reception (PPR) scoring formats, 10 of the first 15 players taken in typical drafts are running backs. If you want to field a competitive lineup this season, focus on RBs early.
Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson are usually the first running backs selected in typical drafts.
Gurley flourished in Rams coach Sean McVay's revamped offense last season, leading all RBs with 13 rushing TDs, and he posted 64 receptions. He's the major cog in a top offense.
Bell has been a top 3 fantasy RB three of the past four seasons Odubel Herrera Jersey , but he's expected to miss his second straight training camp due to a contract dispute with the Steelers. Missing camp last season may have contributed to his slow start. He'll likely have another productive season, but buyer beware; Bell's played the most snaps of any NFL RB since the 2013 season.
Elliott led all RBs in 2017 with 98.3 rushing yards per game and will be the centerpiece of a depleted Cowboys offense. He'll also likely play a bigger role in the Cowboys pass offense this season.
Johnson missed most of the 2017 season due to a wrist injury, but he'll be the focal point of the Arizona offense. He rushed for 1,239 yards, scored 20 total TDs and registered 80 receptions in 2016. He'll run behind a fullback this season to minimize injury risk. Expect him to approach 2016 rushing and pass-catching stats.
Alvin Kamara caught 81 passes last season, but the Saints may need him to play more snaps than he's accustomed to while Mark Ingram serves a four game drug suspension. He may not match last season's combined 13 TDs, however he'll play a big part in the Saints passing game.
Saquon Barkley is expected to have a big impact in his rookie season, both in the Giants run game and in their passing offense. He was going to have a big role anyway, but Barkley's pass protection abilities will ensure he'll be on the field for the majority of the Giants' offensive snaps.
Kareem Hunt led NFL RBs with 1,327 rushing yards and added 53 receptions last season. He'll be the Chiefs' primary back in 2018 and may see a slight uptick in receiving targets with inexperienced QB Patrick Mahomes potentially using him as a safety valve in pressure situations.
Melvin Gordon's 3.8 career yards per carry (YPC) may not impress, however he had the third-most red zone carries among RBs last season and has scored 24 TDs in his last 29 games. TDs are hard to predict, but the Chargers consistently provide Gordon with a high volume of scoring opportunities. Gordon caught 58 balls out of the backfield in 2017 and his reception totals have increased in each of the past three seasons.
The Jaguars run-first offense will provide Leonard Fournette plenty of opportunities. He rushed for 1,040 yards and scored 10 total TDs in his 2017 rookie campaign, but wore down as the season progressed. He's had a history of foot related injuries dating back to his college days, and may not have prolific ball-catching skills Kenny Lofton Jersey , but if Fournette's health holds up, he should post another 1,000-yard rushing season.
Dalvin Cook is recovering from a torn ACL, but should be ready for Week 1. Although Latavius Murray will have a role in the Vikings backfield, Cook will be their primary back. Barring setbacks, pencil him in for 1,000-plus rushing yards and about 40 catches.
Although he'll still have fantasy value in standard (non-PPR) leagues, Christian McCaffrey's 80 receptions from 2017 make him extra valuable in PPR. The Panthers have suggested he could get 25 to 30 touches per game. That sounds optimistic considering that C.J. Anderson is now in the mix, but if he approaches that workload, McCaffrey can possibly outplay his expectations of being a top 12 fantasy RB.
Falcons RB Devonta Freeman landed in the NFL's concussion protocol twice last season. He also sprained both his MCL and PCL. When healthy he is one of the top RBs in all scoring formats.
Jerick McKinnon never had more than 159 carries in a season, but he'll be the featured back in the 49ers offense. His outstanding pass-catching abilities make him valuable in PPR leagues, however his lack of experience as a bell cow back and smallish frame makes you wonder if he can withstand the rigors of a 16 game NFL season.
Bengals RB Joe Mixon has immense talent, however inconsistency, a bad offensive line and uneven usage contributed to his underwhelming rookie season. As the Bengals' primary back, if his offensive line improves its level of play he could enjoy a breakout season.
Jordan Howard has an outstanding career 4.6 YPC Anthony Miller Jersey , however he's had problems catching the ball. The Bears insist he'll be their featured back, however Tarik Cohen's abilities as a pass catcher could cut into Howard's snaps.
LeSean McCoy's offseason troubles and the anemic Bills offense make him risky. Jay Ajayi may break some runs this season but he's an injury risk in a crowded Eagles backfield. Avoid the Seahawks backfield until there is more clarity regarding Rashaad Penny's and Chris Carson's playing time. Sony Michel is expected to miss the rest of the preseason due to a knee injury that could also affect his availability to start the regular season.
Royce Freeman is a very talented RB who may end up being Denver's featured back. Keep an eye on De'Angelo Henderson as well. Raiders RB Marshawn Lynch is a mid-level RB2 who is being drafted as an RB3.
ROTOEXPERTS TOP 15 RBS, PPR LEAGUES
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Ezekiel Elliott, Dal.
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