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Ugly, Delicious: James Harden Powers Houston in a Grisly Game 1 Win

The Timberwolves turned their playoff opener into a grind, but the Rockets had the ultimate counter

NBA: Playoffs-Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I’d heard Tom Thibodeau’s voice on TV before, but like the Grand Canyon, it’s so much more majestic in person. In his pregame press conference, Thibs held forth about … I don’t remember, actually, I was so immersed in the sound. Sonorous, profoundly deep, rich, but also rough, grinding, and disconcertingly humid. Like an old Chevy V8 full of snot. Grotesque, but also oddly beautiful.

That sound bounced around Houston’s Toyota Center as the Timberwolves gave the Rockets everything they could handle but could never deliver the coup de grâce. Houston took Game 1 of their first-round series, 104-101.

The Timberwolves’ effort was also ugly and grinding at times. Andrew Wiggins shot high volume at a low percentage. Karl-Anthony Towns got his shot blocked hideously by Clint Capela at one end and let the 23-year-old Swiss center go for 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first half. Capela had his way with Towns, operating as if he were James Harden’s direwolf, looking like the best roll man since the guy who founded King’s Hawaiian. Taj Gibson was frequently switched onto Harden or Chris Paul on the perimeter and isolated. The Rockets went up 15-4 in the first five minutes to “M-V-P!” chants for Harden, and at no point after that in the first half did it feel like they led by less than 20.

But there the Wolves were, leading five minutes and change into the fourth. Then, after submitting the lead, they snuck back to a three-point deficit with possession of the ball and 8.7 seconds to go. They lingered like a bad smell. Gibson mostly stayed in front of Harden and Paul. And though Harden scored on Derrick Rose like he wasn’t there, Rose scored 16 points, his most since joining the Wolves in March. The Rockets, a team built around its prolific shooting, also shot poorly—they missed seven free throws and 27 of their 3-pointers. Some of that was the result of tough defense, but sometimes they got the shots they wanted and just missed.

“They put a hex on us or something,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We just couldn’t make shots. I thought they were good shots, but we had four or five guys who just couldn’t make shit, which is the way it is sometimes.”

Grotesque, but effective. Maybe not beautiful, but effective.

“It’s not always going to be pretty,” Harden said. “You’re not going to win games by making a lot of 3s—you’ve got to find other ways to win games, and tonight was a perfect example.”

The problem with being the not-Rockets team in a Rockets game is that even when Houston’s sleepwalking through a game, it still has the league’s most dangerous offense. The Rockets ended both the first and third quarters on minute-long 6-0 runs, the latter entirely Harden’s doing. Minnesota could never string together a run of a few points because Harden could always break up the tempo by holding the ball for an iso and break up the scoring with foul shots, a layup, or a 3-pointer.

Capela scored just four points in the second half, and Eric Gordon shot just 3-for-10 from the floor and finished with seven points, while Paul scored just 14 points on 5-for-14 shooting.

“I think the worst thing was these turnovers,” said Paul, who coughed up the ball six times against just four assists. “It was like I was in The Bad News Bears. But it’s all about getting the win.”

But Harden scored 44 points—five off the Rockets’ playoff franchise record—on 26 field goal attempts. The rest just kept the game interesting.

“It’s another day for James,” D’Antoni said. “He’s done it all year, and he really stepped up. We were struggling to make shots, really struggling to have any rhythm of play, and James just put us on his back like he’s been doing for a while now.”

Around the halfway point of the fourth quarter, the Wolves trailed 87-86 and missed on two different opportunities to take the lead. The second of those ended with a Gibson turnover with 5:36 to go. In the ensuing three minutes, Harden scored 12 points, sprinkled in a lob for Capela, and extended Houston’s lead back to eight.

“There were several plays on which I thought we defended well, and he made [shots],” Thibodeau said after the game, his voice having taken on the tone of a man watching the sea erode a cliff. “James is that type of player, and we’ve seen it all year. Very difficult to guard—basically you have to guard him with your whole team.”

“Every time the game was mano a mano and they were in a tight spot, he just took over the game,” Rose said.

Asked after the game whether previous off-shooting nights had helped the Rockets find a way to win Game 1, Paul nodded at Harden and said, “It also helps to have him go off for 44.”

Game 1 was precisely the kind of halting, sloppy, strangely damp encounter that would benefit Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler, rather than the urbane Harden-D’Antoni Rockets. And the Wolves would absolutely have come out on top if Harden were any less dynamic an offensive player.