Last year when the Rockets played the Timberwolves in the playoffs, I got to attend my first playoff game. I live in Minneapolis, and I was excited to see my team come through town. The crowd seemed happy enough just to be there, and you could say the same of the Timberwolves, who didn’t put up much of a fight. This is particularly true of Karl-Anthony Towns, who sacrificed his lunch money to Clint Capela repeatedly, and then played second fiddle to his teammate Jeff Teague’s aggression and shot creation throughout the series. Boy did the Rockets miss Capela tonight.
Seeing Harden and his nonchalant 42 points in person was impressive. At one point in the fourth, he drained 3 step back threes in a row, and I wondered if he was about to take over completely. He continues to make the right play regardless of the defense, passing willingly out of double teams and deferring to Paul when enthusiastic defenders pick him up for 94 feet. Today that defender was Josh Okogie, who played admirably against our hero, even soundly blocking a step-back three pointer in one momentum-shifting moment in the game that will undoubtedly make the highlight reels. He was definitely the Timberwolves most important player, at least, in the absence of Covington with his energetic defense and steady shooting. Wiggins was also out for Minnesota, but that may have been more of an advantage than a hardship.
But despite Okogie’s staunch defense, Harden got his. The streak continues. And it should have been enough to win. But the Rockets lacked any semblance of interior defense. The Rockets’ rebounding numbers weren’t bad, though they were padded by two instances of Faried grabbing a flurry of his own missed layups. Where the defense truly faltered was in stopping dribble penetrations. Teague was the Timberwolves’ highest scorer on a smorgasboard of layups and floaters and midrange jimbos. He repeatedly beat Gerald Green to the rim, or got a favorable switch and flew past Faried or Nene. That penetration led the defense to collapse quicker and help more off of the corners–which led to the Timberwolves shooting 6-8 from the three point line in the fourth quarter. Hard to come back from that.
Considering the Rockets’ relative lack of height (and sand in the pantaloons), I was surprised that Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t dominate. His numbers were good enough: 25 PTs and 9 REBs on 18 shots and 3 of 4 from three. But Dear Reader, I cannot stress to you enough how Charmin-soft this guy seems in person. He is passive and whiny and sometimes almost dead in the eyes in a way that leads me to speculate that he might not even like this game, much less love it like those NBA commercials profess. Sure, his talent level is outlandish. But the crowd never screamed for him like they did for Okogie’s block or subsequent three pointers. And sure, the promotional videos feature KAT. But the games don’t.
Watching him makes me so thankful for Chris Paul and Harden and PJ–for getting to root for players that are, at times, simply immovable in the face of defeat. Of course, without an anchor, even the most sturdy of ships will drift away. The Rockets’ anchor is named Clint Capela, and he’s coming back soon.
The Eye Test
Iman Shumpert’s stat line was minimal in today’s game: 3 points in 20 minutes with a rebound, an assist, and a block. He shot 1 for 4, all from three point land. In a game the Rockets lost by ten points, he was a -13. Still, take a moment to watch him on defense. His energy when fighting over screens was impressive. He’s not Kawhi, and he’s not Paul George. But he attaches himself to the hip of his man and fights over the screen without sacrificing an inch. He willingly stepped up to be the point of attack defender whether Teague or Derrick Rose was bringing up the ball. His shot will fall. He will understand the rhythms of our offense over time. I would be shocked if we didn’t see him with some game changing perimeter defense in the upcoming playoffs, especially with Clint behind him to allow for slightly more risk taking defensively. Good Stuff, Shump.