In previous seasons, the Love-led Timberwolves have been a difficult opponent for the Rockets. But it only takes one look at the injury list is enough to see that coming into the game Houston had to be the favourites. Not playing tonight for the Wolves are Love, Pekovic, Kirilenko, Budinger, Roy, Lee. It’s not just the quantity of players missing, but also the quantity – you could make a strong case that Love, Pekovic and Kirilenko are probably three of their best four players. So in the shadow of their empty bench, the remnants of the Minnesota roster came to do battle in what is, as with pretty much all remaining games this season, a must win for the Rockets. Perhaps the Rockets players had read the team sheet too, because out of the gate they looked sluggish, disinterested and careless. As the season has gone on the team has done a good job of eradicating the turnover bug that dogged them early doors, but it seems a strain of it has developed a resistance to whatever antibiotic they were using. The first half was very much a throwback to those careless days of November and December – 15 turnovers by half time! That’s a full game’s quota on most nights and the Wolves were able to turn them into 20 points. It might have been more but for a couple of heads up plays by Motiejunas and Lin to draw charges to stop the fast break.
When the Rockets weren’t giving the ball away, the offense didn’t seem to have the ball movement or penetration that normally fuels their high-scoring machine. The proof was in the scoreboard – for a team that can put up 60 point halves on a regular basis, going in at the break down 57-39 is an abysmal showing. Players seemed to be holding the ball for longer than they should and weren’t always making the right passes. Part of their hesitance may have been due to the excellent shot-blocking display of the Wolves’ two remaining centres. Greg Stiemsma and Chris Johnson (who you may remember for torching the Rockets in his first NBA action for the Wolves earlier in the year) share similar body types – tall and skinny but with long arms – and they also share a good sense of timing. In the first half they registered 6 blocks between them and did a good job of dissuading the Rockets from getting into the paint. What was left was a lot of pull-ups for three pointers (which Harden is very capable of making on occasion, but if it’s more than the odd one it probably won’t end well), and a cavalcade of passes that ended either out of bounds or in the hands of a waiting Timberwolf.
The start of the second half was much more auspicious. The team came out firing on all cylinders on the back of an offensive explosion from James Harden. 11 quick points from him helped cut the deficit to single digits within the first 4 minutes of the half. The defense, which had been porous early on, was improving as well. The Timberwolves fielded the offensively limited Johnson, which allowed Asik to rove a bit and made it much easier to key in on the remaining offensive threats. Parsons was put on Ridnour, and used his superior length to bother the much smaller man. Lin also did a decent job of making it difficult for Rubio to orchestrate the offense.
The one weak link defensively was Motiejunas’ coverage of Derrick Williams. He drew a charge early in the third and was able to contain the dribble drive, but he really struggled to maintain the proper distance from Williams to allow him to contest, leaving him free for jumper after jumper. D-Mo is still very much a work in progress at this end, but this was an assignment I was hopeful he could do better with – Williams is still struggling to work things out at an NBA level, but he was made to look pretty good tonight. Williams finished with 19 points on 7-14 shooting, D-Mo was only able to put up 4 on 6 shots.
In the end, the Rockets almost managed to match their first half total in the third quarter alone, scoring 35 points to claw themselves back within 6. Lin and Harden combined for 22 points. They started off the 4th quarter in similar fashion and the game was soon tied at 82 apiece. Greg Smith came in and was able to provide a huge spark with some high energy play around the rim. Lin continually found him around the basket and he was able to finish. There was one particularly pretty fast break where he took the ball on a dead rim run from Delfino and slammed it home, and he also got to the line on consecutive possessions (only converted 2-4, but you can’t have everything). Minnesota’s empty bench was starting to take its toll – they were settling for outside shots and missing them, and the Rockets were actually able to build a 9 point lead and never looked back. It was a remarkable comeback after looking so poor in the first half.
The Rockets rediscovered the mojo that had been missing in the first half in their comeback. 69 points in two quarters is more the sort of scoring output we’re used to seeing from them! It’s that level of scoring pace that makes them such a dangerous opponent – no team wants to face someone who can wipe out a 20 point deficit with the seeming ease the Rockets were able to here. But not all opponents will suffer from the fatigue and personnel shortages that the Timberwolves are afflicted with, and against a better team this would have been a disappointing loss rather than a reliving victory. Only focusing for 50% of the game is a habit the Rockets need to break as soon as possible in order to smoothen their passage to the playoffs.
- McHale has obviously decided that Garcia is a good enough player for him to expand his rotation from the usual 9 to 10, so he now has a full bench lineup to play with. We saw the most obvious example of this on Wednesday when he pulled out a platoon sub mid-way through the second quarter, and he continued with it tonight. That meant a Beverley-Delfino-Garcia-Robinson-Smith lineup on the floor in the second quarter, and it actually did alright for itself (+3 in just under 5 minutes of play). It seems like a good idea – when the playoffs come around the rotations will be shortened, so in order to be able to see what they’ve got the coaching staff need to have a chance to evaluate more of these players in live ball situations.
- The end of the game illustrated one of the rare times where the isolation play was actually a good idea. The Wolves were so anxious to get the ball out of Harden’s hands that they sent multiple defenders at him, and the Rockets did a great job of shredding that tactic by drawing the defenders out and then finding the open man. If you can induce that sort of defensive strategy (whether it’s due to time pressure or simply the threat of the player with the ball in his hands), then you can profit from it. For all that I dislike Harden’s overuse of this play-type, it must be said in his defense that he is quick to spot and take advantage of openings like this and very willing to give up the ball for an open shot if one is available.
- Lin had an excellent game, finishing with 24 points, 8 assists and 4 steals in 39 minutes. There were a couple of vintage Lin layups and also some great interplay with Greg Smith. The second half performance was possibly the best I’ve seen him and Harden play on the court together at the same time – they divided control of the ball well and were able to drive multiple times in the same possession to get the defense completely out of position.
- Harden may have a dodgy ankle, but you wouldn’t know it from this performance. He took over the game in the third quarter and didn’t let up, finishing with 38 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds. None of the tired-looking Minnesota back-court could keep up with him, and he had his way with all of them. Rubio was their only real hope (neither Ridnour nor Barea would have stood a chance), but he was unable to slow him down. The Beard could do to look after the ball a tad better (5 turnovers is rather high), but really that’s advice that should go to the whole team after that first half.