All year long, the Houston Rockets roasted opposing defenses from beyond the arc, taking and making more 3-pointers than any other team in the NBA. For whatever reason, though, they just couldn’t get on track from deep in Game 1 of their opening-round playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday, shooting just 10-for-37 from 3-point range.
Luckily for Houston, though, the other thing they’ve relied on to annihilate the opposition was fully operational on Sunday. James Harden offered a clear, concise, tough-to-dismiss distillation of exactly why he’s the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player honors, catching fire after halftime to carry his team to a 104-101 win and take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series:
After Minnesota raged out of halftime with a 16-6 run to take a three-point lead midway through the third quarter, Harden just took over. He scored 12 points in the frame’s final five minutes to put the Rockets back in front heading into the fourth, and dominated down the stretch with 13 more in the last 5 1/2 minutes of the game, keeping the Wolves at bay just long enough for Houston to escape.
Harden led the NBA in scoring during the regular season, and he led all scorers on Sunday, pouring in 44 points — 25 of them coming after the five-minute mark of the third — on sparkling 15-for-26 shooting, including a 7-for-12 mark from deep. The Beard added with eight assists, four rebounds, two steals and just three turnovers in 41 brilliant minutes.
“What did he want? A free throw? A 3-pointer? A layup?” Wolves All-Star forward Jimmy Butler, who matched up with Harden for part of his second-half explosion, said during his post-game press conference. “He got whatever he wanted in that game, and I’ve got to be better at taking that away from him.”
No matter which Wolf drew the assignment — Butler, former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, former league MVP-turned-backup wing Derrick Rose, you name it — Harden tortured and torched his mark, repeatedly getting to the rim, to the line or to his preferred spot stepping back beyond the 3-point line. In doing so, he provided the offensive production his team sorely needed on a night when every Rocket not named Harden or Clint Capela combined to shoot 14-for-42 from the field and 3-for-25 from 3-point land.
“It’s the playoffs,” Harden said during his post-game press conference. “It’s not about how great you shoot the ball. It’s about just getting the win. I mean, that’s all that matters.”
It’s a lot easier to say that, though, when you’ve got an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass bailout option like No. 13.
“I mean, it also helps to have him go off for 44,” Chris Paul said at the post-game podium, nodding to the iso-scoring inferno seated to his left.
Also helpful: that Capela was a beast on the interior in the first half. The third member of Houston’s power trio excelled as a lob finisher, a possession-extending offensive rebounder and a ready-and-waiting drop-off target along the baseline whenever Harden gained the lane and drew a rotating defender:
Capela rolled up 20 points and 10 rebounds before halftime, helping keep Houston’s misfiring offense afloat early with a steady stream of easy buckets. He finished with 24 points, 12 boards, three blocks, a steal and an assist in 34 minutes of floor time.
The heroics of Harden and Capela helped minimize the impact of a disappointing postseason debut for Paul, who joined the Rockets in a blockbuster trade last summer intended at giving Houston the kind of playmaking firepower it would need to stand toe-to-toe with the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
The partnership worked beautifully throughout the regular season, as Houston rolled up the NBA’s best record and steamrolled its way to home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. On Sunday, though, Paul struggled to hold up his end of the bargain, needing 14 shots to score 14 points and looking uncharacteristically unsure with the ball in his hands, coughing it up six times while dishing only four assists in 34 minutes.
Paul made a pair of clutch free throws to give Houston a five-point lead with 21 seconds to go. But after Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns tipped in a missed Butler floater to put the deficit back at three with 14 seconds remaining, Paul took the inbounds pass, dribbled out of traffic in an attempt to avoid the foul and eat up some more clock … and air-mailed a lead pass a few feet past the outstretched arm of Eric Gordon and out of bounds, giving the Wolves possession and a chance to tie with eight seconds remaining.
The Wolves couldn’t equalize. Butler dribbled the length of the court, backed into P.J. Tucker, spun to his right, stepped back — with one foot still over the line, meaning it would’ve only been a 2-pointer had it hit — and airballed it short. Wiggins came up with the loose ball and tried to race to the short corner to fire up a 3, but lost the ball out of bounds, ending Minnesota’s upset bid and freeing Paul of goat horns for his shaky outing and late-game misfire.
“We won,” Paul said when asked after the game about his performance. “I mean, at the end of the day. You know, I think the worst thing is them turnovers, man. I feel like I was with the Bad News Bears. But at the end of the day, it’s all about getting the win.”
Wiggins scored 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting to lead five players in double-figures for the Wolves, who beat the Denver Nuggets on the final night of the regular season to clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth in 14 years. One of those double-digit scorers was not All-Star center Towns, who was limited to only eight points in his first NBA playoff game, 13 below his regular-season average.
More often than not on Sunday, Towns didn’t find himself tamped down by suffocating defense from Capela or reserve center Nene. Instead, Houston continued its season-long commitment to switching screens and living with the results inside, a strategy born of the beliefs that A) their stout guards and wings are strong enough to hold up against most low-block threats without requiring a double-team and B) if an opponent wants to play mismatch basketball by hunting post-ups, often derided as just about the least efficient offensive option in today’s game, well, they can go nuts.
And so, the Rockets lived with the likes of Harden and Tucker getting switched onto Towns, all but daring a Minnesota team that can struggle at entering the ball into the post to try to feed their star young big man. Sometimes, the Wolves would look away from the mismatch, with one of their perimeter players — Butler, Rose, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford — preferring to attack the big they’d drawn off the switch. Others, Towns would migrate away from the lane, fanning out to the corner to maintain Minnesota’s spacing.
Here's a compilation of KAT getting a mismatch on the switch and then either slinking to the corner or not getting the ball. Sometimes the guards don't even look at him. I'm not even a Wolves fan and I'm heated about this. pic.twitter.com/hgyYKcjB7F
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 16, 2018
As a result, Towns — one of the league’s most efficient and effective inside-out monsters — wound up with just nine field-goal attempts, tied for fifth-most on the team, in 40 minutes of floor time.
Wolves Game 1 usage:
Butler 15.6% <—
Towns 14.2% <—
— Justin Phan (@jphanned) April 16, 2018
“Well, they’re switching and they’re double-teaming,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “So that’s … he’s got to be more active.”
Despite the comparatively quiet game from their All-Star center, the Wolves did hang with the Rockets, erasing an early 11-point deficit by attacking, sharing the ball and earning their way to the foul line.
“It’s not a one-on-one game, and everyone has to understand that,” Thibodeau said. “So if they’re going to double-team, that means it’s going to be easy for other people. If they’re going to switch, we have to make the right reads. If we’re making the right plays, 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.”
Thibodeau’s probably right. Despite a paucity of bankable long-distance shooting, the Wolves did finish the regular season fourth in offensive efficiency, not too far behind second-place Houston in points scored per possession. The problem the Wolves face, though, is that the Rockets probably will, too.
“I think we shot, what, 10-for-37?” Harden said. “We’re shooters. We’ve been doing it all year long, and [that’s] not going to happen every game.”
Minnesota got the game played in its preferred style, got 31 points from Rose and Crawford, got Teague largely outplaying Paul at the point, got the Rockets missing 27 3-pointers (and seven free throws) … and the Wolves still lost. When you’re the underdog playing a heavy favorite, that feels like the kind of game you have to find a way to win, and there’s the glass-half-empty take: that the Wolves might have already squandered their best chance at making this a series.
Butler’s a glass-half-full type.
“Nah,” he said when asked if he felt the Wolves had let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers. “We got another great opportunity coming on Wednesday. Go back to the drawing board, change some things up and figure it out.”
The issues aren’t tactical for the Rockets. They just need the other one of their Hall of Fame point guards to find some rhythm, and for some of the many great looks they clanged on Sunday to go down. If those things start to tilt in their favor, the Wolves could find themselves on the business end of the kind of math problem they’re just not equipped to solve.
“I’m just glad we gutted it out,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of his team’s poor shooting night. “Now, we can start playing some basketball.”
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