By: Paul McGuire
After 40 games of misery, softness, and all too many frustrating nights, the Houston Rockets have finally made it to 2 games above .500 for the first time this season.
But this is something to celebrate. And while this game could have been played better, Rockets fans can hope once again that this team is turning things around.
Tonight was not the defensive effort that we saw against Memphis. The Rockets more outtalented the Timberwolves rather than outplayed them. But after blowing so many games against bad teams like the Nets and Nuggets, sometimes outtalenting is enough. Certain Rockets players are working their way into shape, and the Houston Rockets have a five game winning streak.
One of Minnesota's major weaknesses is that they are not that much better than the Rockets when it comes to turnovers. Houston has the third most turnovers in the league (Phoenix and Philadelphia are the two worse teams) while Minnesota is eighth. And while the Rockets had a staggering nine turnovers in the first quarter, they finished with just 16 at the end of the game compared to 20 for Minnesota.
Houston's turnovers mostly came in the first quarter against Memphis as well. I don't think that is a coincidence. The Rockets do move the ball around more early in the game, and we saw more lobs at that point as Harden and Jason Terry ( tonight's starting point guard as Patrick Beverley had a personal family health issue) throw the ball up more to Clint Capela or Dwight Howard. A lot of the time, it works.
But a lot of the time, Harden on the pick and roll forces that annoying bounce pass between the legs of the opposing defender, who just grabs the ball and races down for the transition basket. The Houston announcers have noticed that too, and questioned why Harden uses it so much.
In the fourth quarter, you see more Harden iso, which despite its downsides does not result in quite as many turnovers. It did result in offensive stagnation towards the end, but they scored enough and Harden hit some good jumpers in the fourth quarter on his way to 27 points.
In the second quarter, Houston's bench came alive and kept a high tempo by forcing Minnesota turnovers. Corey Brewer has been respectable over the past few games after struggling earlier this season. In fact, he is shooting 54 percent from the field over January. Ty Lawson had two great defensive plays in the first quarter where he stopped the larger Shabazz Muhammed in the post and forced the turnover. Terrence Jones dropped in 16 and 9, and Marcus Thornton had 9 points despite forcing his shot too much.
Kevin Martin did score 22 points on 10 shots off the bench for the Wolves. He was his predictably efficient, yet infuriating self who drew some controversial foul calls. But bench help is more than just scoring (tell that to the Sixth Man of the Year voters). It is about all of those other crucial aspects of basketball, and Martin has never been good at anything but scoring efficiently.
And while Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be a very scary player someday, Dwight Howard and the Rockets big men were better today. There was a moment in the fourth quarter where Howard was wrapped up by Gorgui Dieng, only for the refs to initially miss it and then give Howard a technical when he complained.
Howard responded with this monstrosity of a dunk. He scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the night, in addition to Jones's and Capela's contributions. And while Towns had 12 points and 16 rebounds ( including a really smoooth-looking three-pointer in the first), Nikola Pekovic and Dieng were nothing to write home about.
The Rockets could have done better guarding the perimeter, as Harden had his lapses on defense and the team overall had communication issues. And as noted, they turned the ball over too many times. But the Wolves did not have the talent to capitalize, and the Rockets managed to hold on and secure this game.
The Rockets have won five games in a row and will be play the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. The game is at home, and the Cavaliers will be on the second night of a back to back after playing in San Antonio on Thursday.
If there is to ever be a game where the Rockets can beat one of the legitimate championship contenders in the NBA, it is Friday. The Rockets have beaten some good teams in this winning streak like the Grizzlies and Pacers. But if they can give the Cavaliers a good thumping, then even the most pessimistic Rockets fan should start getting some hope back.