The Rockets have very little to show from tonight’s performance. They played lackadaisically for much of the game, the starters didn’t get any rest and they didn’t even get a win to show for it as the Timberwolves pulled out the victory on the back of Gorgui Dieng’s late game-winner. With the playoffs coming up, you want to keep your starters fresh, but tonight’s game was a masterclass in not doing that as McHale elected to play Harden 46 minutes and Parsons 43. This is the sort of game that the Rockets should not be having at this stage of the season. Either your team should be ironing out the last kinks before the playoffs come around or wrapping your stars in cotton wool. Houston did neither. I can only hope they don’t come to regret it.
For the second game in a row, an opposing shooting guard found themselves white-hot against the Rockets. Last time it was Randy Foye with 30 points, but Corey Brewer came out and absolutely crushed that mark tonight with 51 (I repeat, 51!). He jetted out of the gate with 20 points in the first 14 minutes and then just kept on going. Off-balance circus shot? No problem. Half court buzzer beater? Naturally. His game is fuelled by steals and run-outs, and a sloppy and sluggish Houston team proved to be a perfect hunting ground for him (he had 6 steals to go with that points haul). Everyone took turns guarding him, and nobody stood up to the challenge.
The first half started out very poorly. Transition defence was non-existent and Brewer was happy to set a fast-breaking example for the rest of the Timberwolves to follow. In the first quarter alone the Rockets gave up 15 fast break points (a tally which rose to an unspeakable 39 over the course of the game). And even when the Rockets did manage to get into a half-court setting they were not much better. Terrence Jones was the perpetrator of possibly the worst defensive breakdown of the year as he allowed Ricky Rubio to come off a pick and have an unchallenged drive from the three point line to the rim. Words cannot describe how ugly it looked – it felt like I was watching the Knicks out there!
This was a game that on paper the Rockets should have cruised through. Minnesota’s bench play this season has been poor, and they were missing three starters in Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin. But the Rockets’ swiss-cheese impression on the defensive end forced them to work much harder than they needed or wanted to at this point. They were fortunate to be able to claw their way back into the game in the second quarter on the back of some hot three point shooting (8-14 in the first half), without which they would have been embarrassed. They lived at the line for the majority of the second half as the whistles started blowing, but they were never going to pull away while they were making the likes of Brewer, Cunningham and Dieng look like offensive geniuses.
Harden, Parsons and Lin all had scary moments where they came up limping. Harden collided with Brewer while scrambling for a loose ball and grimaced in pain as he hopped it off. Parsons attempted a spectacular dunk over Turiaf and landed heavily on his tailbone to obvious discomfort. Lin rolled his ankle late on as he rushed to foul Ricky Rubio. The most lasting image in my mind from this game will certainly be both Harden and Lin lying on the floor after the game had finished, looking both exhausted and possibly hurt. Injuries are random, but one of the things research has shown is that they are more likely to happen when players are tired. At the end of a long season, to play Harden and Parsons for so many minutes was a reckless gamble from McHale.
Then there were the players who missed out. No Jordan Hamilton (who was not listed as injured). Isaiah Canaan played just 4 minutes, with McHale preferring to go to an unusual lineup with Harden running the point guard rather than play the rookie (there were 20 minutes of the game where the Rockets had no true point guard on the floor). Shuffling everyone up a position and giving Garcia and Casspi big minutes actually worked pretty well (Casspi was +15 and Garcia +9 on the night), but the extra workload on Harden had a particularly detrimental effect on his defence. There were multiple fourth quarter possessions in which he completely ignored his man, often standing still near the paint as his assignment cut to the opposite side of the court. But what can you expect when you force him into extra ball-handling duties and give him a grand total of two minutes of rest all game?
As an observer and a fan I am not quick to criticise, but tonight was baffling. Hopefully it won’t happen again.