Thanks to Chris Paul, and not James Harden, the Rockets dismantled the Wolves, 102-82, to gain a commanding 2-0 series lead and get one step closer to a first-round sweep. Here are three takeaways from the game:
James Harden Doesn’t Need to be Great for the Rockets to Win
Twelve points. One-of-10 from 3. Two-of-18 from the field. All in 31 minutes of empty calories. That’s not Andrew Wiggins’s line. It’s future MVP Harden’s stats in the Rockets’ shellacking of the Wolves.
Harden was inconsequential, a casual traffic cone parked idly as the team around him raced by. (Think LeBron could use a little bit of that?) It was like Harden had a bad night just because he could. And it wasn’t just him either; Houston as a whole shot 36.5 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from 3. This is one of the most prolific offenses of all time, and it barely needed to be effective shooting the ball to get the W. Gerald Green added 21 strong off the bench, and Chris Paul bounced back from a paltry Game 1 performance by going off for 27 points and treating the Wolves like a practice team he could show off on. By the time garbage time arrived late in the third quarter, the Rockets were up 22 and Paul was doing his best Harlem Globetrotters impression:
This is the luxury of being the Rockets in the first round: CP3 can do his best Cirque du Soleil impression running circles around a stumbling Derrick Rose while Harden cheers like a starstruck fan from the bench having barely broken a sweat.
The Rockets’ Defense Is Real
The Wolves finished with 82 points on Wednesday night—their lowest point total of the entire season. It’s impossible to talk about what the Rockets did right without mentioning their relentless defense. They held Minny to 38.8 percent from the field and a disgusting 27.8 percent from 3. Everything seemed to channel to allowing Wiggins to take as many shots as he wanted—he finished with a team-high 14 attempts and made only six of them.
For being known as perennial offensive firepower, Houston is showing it can win with defense, too. And on paper, beyond Harden, it makes sense. Clint Capela is a force in the paint, possessing the length the Rockets need to make teams afraid of going to the rim, and Paul is still a menace on the perimeter. Jimmy Butler, who was thought to be the key for the Wolves when he returned from injury, had only 11 points on six shots. This is why the Rockets can make just 16 of their whopping 52 3s and still get away with a highway robbery. It’s why you can Sharpie them into the second round, and while you’re at it, pen this series as a sweep.
Sure, this is against the Wolves, an 8-seed that doesn’t look to have much spirit. But these kinds of performances bode well for the Rockets’ playoff future. At some point, they’ll need stellar defense, too.
The Timberpups Are Having a Rough First Playoffs
The young Wolves’ maiden cruise into the playoffs appears to be capsizing.
Karl-Anthony Towns finished with five points on nine shots Wednesday as he was outplayed by Capela again. Five points. In Game 1, he had eight points. At some point it doesn’t matter if Tom Thibodeau’s game plan doesn’t call for more opportunities for Towns, or if Towns isn’t out there looking for touches—however many shots he takes, more than two or three of them should be going in the basket. This is an All-Star center we’re talking about.
This season, Wiggins has gone from potential franchise cornerstone to overpaid point of weakness—and one that teams have no problem targeting. Combine that with Towns’s ever-shrinking game and this is not exactly the ideal showing for a Wolves team making its first appearance in the playoffs. Sure, they need a fully healthy Jimmy Butler, which they’re not getting, but they’re not just getting outplayed by a better team—they’re getting run off the floor. It’s like Thibs is making them run suicides before every tipoff.
It’s not a great look for Thibs’s squad that they’re down two games, couldn’t steal a winnable Game 1, and will likely go into the offseason with more questions than answers.