HOUSTON — If the long road to June basketball is to come to fruition for the best regular-season team in basketball, it had to start like this for the Houston Rockets.
That first step, that first foray into the great postseason abyss, required this sort of confirmation from the No. 1 overall seed in the entire tournament, so to speak.
There’s no room for Cinderellas around here, no slaying of Goliath, not on Clint Capela’s watch. Not with James Harden on the case when the Rockets needed it most, and especially at crunch time. And not with Chris Paul, chip planted firmly on his shoulder as always, eyeballing bigger and better things than being the best from late October to mid-April.
So it won’t be easy.
Nobody said it would be.
And let’s be clear, the Minnesota Timberwolves are not a normal eight seed. Not really. A healthy Jimmy Butler and the infusion of veteran talent that helped end the second longest playoff drought in NBA history this season makes that big a difference.
They certainly did Sunday night at Toyota Center, when the Rockets were forced to battle until the very end for a 104-101 win despite a 44-point masterpiece from Harden. But like everyone else who dealt with these juggernaut Rockets all season long, Harden and his crew proved to be too much with the game on the line.
With Harden on the bench and the game tied at 85 with 6:49 to play, the script was already written.
He came in for Paul with 6:07 to play and the Rockets up a point, and promptly scored on a driving layup. He stole the ball and then scored on a driving floater. After a Capela block, he scored on a driving layup. By the time he knocked down a 3-pointer with 4:27 left, the Rockets’ lead was back up to eight points, 94-86, and it was clear that Harden was going to do whatever it took — scoring, playmaking and even defending — to keep Game 1 from going awry.
It was vintage work from the maestro who has owned the floor most every night since the season opener, when Harden and the Rockets went into Oracle Arena as the reigning champion Golden State Warriors hung another banner and collected those diamond-laced title rings and walked off the floor winners.
“Another day for James,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said after Harden finished one point shy of his playoff career high. “He’s done it all year and he really stepped up. We were struggling to make shots, struggling to really have any kind of rhythm of play and James put us on his back and he’s been doing it for a while now.”
D’Antoni will have to forgive the rest of us, including the frontrunner for the Kia MVP this season, for not digesting his theory about the playoffs being something other than a referendum on his team’s magical regular season. Harden operated like someone keenly aware of what was at stake with the Timberwolves, each and every one of them, trying in vain to slow him down.
“Honestly, I just try to be aggressive and make the right play,” Harden said. “Things got slowed up a little bit, just try to be aggressive with my shot and fortunately it went in.”
Jimmy Butler is an All-Star and one of the league’s best two-way players. Derrick Rose is a former Kia MVP himself, and still has enough juice left to make things difficult for someone when he locks in the way he did on this night. And neither one of them had any luck slowing Harden down during his second-half blitz. He scored 25 of his points in the final 18 minutes, making play after play when the Timberwolves appeared to be on the verge of potentially pulling off a shocker.
“There were several plays in which I thought we defended well and he made shots,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “James is that type of player and we’ve seen it all year, (he’s) very difficult to guard. Basically, you have to guard him with your whole team. And it’s not just his scoring, but his playmaking and all the things that he does.”
The Rockets won on a night when they shot a brutal 27 percent (10-for-37) from beyond the 3-point line, where they’ve feasted on the opposition all season. They roasted the Timberwolves from distance during their regular season match ups to the tune of 43.4 percent and more than doubled them up in 3-point makes during those games, but made just two more Sunday night.
Harden was 7-for-12 from deep, a playoff career-high for makes, while the rest of the Rockets shot a combined 3-for-25. And he was draining his shots with hands in his face routinely.
“He’s an MVP candidate and you know why,” said Timberwolves big man Taj Gibson. “Every time the game was ‘mono e mono’ and they were in a tight spot, he just took over the game. He made some tough shots, he played phenomenal tonight. We were trying to throw everything at him, he’s a talented player.”
He’s clearly much more than that.
“I mean yeah, he’s a hell of a player,” Butler said. “Everyone knows that. But you don’t just guard him with one guy. It’s everybody out there, everybody has to be in the correct position. Challenge shots; contest them at the rim, but more than anything, if there is a miss we’ve got to get the rebound and take off the other way. But we didn’t do any of that tonight, we’ve got to be better (in Game 2) on Wednesday.”
Thibodeau had to turn to his bench to stay in the game before halftime and they delivered, scoring 19 points and playing with an energy level that matched what the Rockets did regardless of who was on the floor.
Rose (nine points), Jamal Crawford (seven) and Gorgui Dieng (three) did all that bench scoring, which was the only way to offset the furious 49 points Capela and Harden combined for before the break.
Jeff Teague’s three fouls and Butler’s defensive task, trying to keep Harden under wraps, required so much of his attention that the scoring load had to be picked up by someone else. He went scoreless in the first quarter and just never seemed to get untracked early on, finishing with just 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting.
It’s an issue the Timberwolves won’t be able to scheme their way out of in this series, not as long as Capela is the most energetic and effective young big man on either team. He outscored the All-Star Towns 20-3 before the break and out rebounded him 10-5, adding two blocks and a steal to drive home the point that he’s up for this challenge all series long.
“Man, Clint was all over the place, both ends of the court offensively and defensively,” Paul said. “You see him defending KAT, who’s a tough cover in the post. You know I’m low, and I weak side and I’m watching him go up for the hook, and then I’m watching Clint block it, and then he’s running. he was unbelievable tonight and we’re going to need that all season.”
Capela finished his night with 24 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks while Towns didn’t crack double digits in the scoring column (eight points on 3-for-9 shooting, 12 rebounds in a team-high 40 minutes of action).
Chalk it up as a lesson learned for the playoff rookie. That must-win game the Timberwolves won at home over Denver Wednesday night had all the hype and intensity of a playoff game, only it wasn’t.
Thibodeau credited the Rockets’ defense, the swarming and double-teaming of Towns, for slowing the big man down.
“He has to be more active,” Thibodeau said, before praising the Rockets for perhaps their most underrated trait this season: The ability to lock down defensively. “They’re good, they’re very good. They’re tied together, they do a lot of switching and after the switch they read the ball extremely well. They react, they swarm, and so you have ti make good decisions, you have to make good plays. You have to have the ability to read and react.”
Funny, that’s what the Rockets’ best player does perhaps as well as any other player in the league right now.
Harden reads and reacts accordingly, always seemingly coming up with the right play at the right time.
That’s how you know he’s in the moment right now, as are the rest of the Rockets. No matter how many times and how many different ways anyone tries to deflect attention from the obvious, they comprehend every bit of what lies ahead for a team riding into the postseason on the strength of a 65-win regular season that saw them run away from the competition.
They wouldn’t have souls if they didn’t.
They wouldn’t be human if they hadn’t already calculated the weight of the best regular season in franchise history times a wide-open postseason equaling something that’s never been done here, which says a lot for a franchise that has two Larry O’Brien trophies to show off.
They know how important each and every step on this current journey is, starting with Sunday night’s very first choppy ones. Any suggestion to the contrary is, shall we say, a distant cousin of the truth.
But we’ll play along for now, at the beginning.
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