Too Hot To Handle
HOUSTON - The blowout wins were beautiful; works of art, really – masterpieces that deserved to be relished, savored and replayed as a testament to the Rockets’ explosive offensive potential when everything clicks and they play their preferred style of pace.
Wednesday’s 87-84 victory over Minnesota, on the other hand, contained next to none of those aesthetically pleasing attributes. The up-tempo style slowed to a snail’s pace, shots went awry, turnovers arrived in bunches and that crisp, exquisite ball movement that had been a trademark of Houston’s recent play could only be seen within the briefest of glimpses.
Yet the state of euphoria produced at the end perhaps exceeded anything the Rockets have experienced during their remarkable five-game winning streak.
That’s because James Harden rode to the rescue at just the right time, delivering 17 fourth quarter points – including 15 of Houston’s final 17 – to ensure his club left the Target Center with one of the team’s more satisfying, if not particularly winsome, triumphs of the season. Rising to the occasion in what he termed “winning time,” the Rockets’ 24-year-old scoring machine made it his mission to carve up the Minnesota defense in the final frame and he most definitely was up to the task, driving into the paint with guile and grace, especially during his last two forays in the final minute which produced a pair of layups that put Houston ahead for good.
“I was just being aggressive,” said Harden, who had a game-high 30 points on 11-22 shooting from the field. “I knew it was time where somebody needed someone to step up and that’s what I’m here for.
“We were kind of sluggish throughout the game. We weren't really moving the ball. The ball got stagnant. It allowed them to get some easy buckets and open shots and stuff like that but we stuck with it for four quarters. Every game we are not going to score the ball and make shots every single game, so different games you are going to have to grind them out and try to force a win, especially on the road and we did a good job of that.”
“Grind” was indeed the perfect description for a game that saw both teams struggle to score with any sort of consistency until Harden’s fourth quarter offensive exploits stole the show. Perhaps feeling the effects of playing the second end of a back-to-back, the Rockets’ pace was more plodding than punishing during the second half while the first saw Houston fall victim to a turnover epidemic. Minnesota, meanwhile, could scarcely claim to being any better as the Timberwolves coughed up a 14-point third quarter lead thanks to a scoreless stretch that lasted more than 5 minutes.
Each team’s respective defense certainly had something to do with the resulting offensive malaise, as Houston’s Omer Asik (9 points, 17 rebounds) and Minnesota’s Andrei Kirilenko were especially lively and disruptive on that end of the floor. But a host of missed shots and mental miscues were surely to blame as well, with both clubs supplying their fair share of each while frequently failing to find any sort of offensive rhythm. But a timely boost off the bench from Carlos Delfino (11 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) kept the Rockets within striking distance into the fourth quarter, allowing Harden an opportunity to seize the reins and singlehandedly steal a win that had seemed so far from reach for a significant portion of the second half.
“When he’s playing downhill on you, he’s just a monster,” said Houston’s head coach Kevin McHale after the game. “It just is so hard to defend. He’s got the sidestep, Eurostep, driving into you – he’s so doggone strong and he’s really got strong hands so he just mauls the ball through your armpit and he just finds a way to finish. His last couple hoops were just hard drives that were fantastic.”
That was a snail’s pace. That was the anti how we wanted to play. We had a lot of juice last night and really got going. We struggled to find a rhythm all night long. I had an idea we could run a couple of things but we had to keep it close. Then down the stretch I thought there was a play I thought would work really well for James, we got it to him and he delivered for us big time down the stretch.
But no, that was not the pace we were talking about. That was a direct 180 from yesterday. But I had said earlier that until the team understands that that’s how they have to play, I can tell them all I want (and it won’t matter). As a basketball player, the biggest difference that came in my game is when I understood what I had to do to be successful – then you do it every night … We’re still in the infantile stages of getting us to play that way. And it’s hard – I’ll be the first one to tell you that if you’re going to run steady, it ends up being tough; every night you’ve got to get out and get it – you’ve got to run when you’re tired … We found a way to win this one. It wasn’t pretty but it was a big win for us.
(on whether James Harden is as good as he thought he was)
He’s actually probably better than I thought he was. James can really pass the ball. He really sees a lot of passes. He sees stuff that you have to be a very gifted player to see. He’ll make plays that make you go, ‘Wow, that’s a helluva pass.’ When he’s playing downhill on you, he’s just a monster. It just is so hard to defend. He’s got the sidestep, Eurostep, driving into you – he’s so doggone strong and he’s really got strong hands so he just mauls the ball through your armpit and he just finds a way to finish. His last couple hoops were just hard drives that were fantastic.
(on Omer Asik’s play)
Omer was fantastic. His size and his ability and willingness to track the ball down … He’s kind of like the Wolves’ lineup with their big guys – he just goes and gets the ball. If there’s a scrum he comes up with it and just keeps fighting for it. He’s been huge for us and I’m happy for him.
On how difficult it was to keep James sitting long...
"Well we didn't have much energy. I thought that group came in and I thought it changed early in the third and made a couple substitutions. Toney came out and played real well. We put Greg in there just to try and get some size. We just had to trade some stuff up. Both those guys are pretty diligent about staying wide and getting movement. We started to get our traction at that time, which was good. I think that group went on an 11-2 run. It's a lot easier to sit a guy when you are making runs. Eventually I knew I was going to go back to him. It's not like I was going to sit him all night. At the end of the day he did play 37 minutes."
Just got some rest and Coach put me back in the game and I just had to make plays. The fourth quarter is winning time.
I was just being aggressive. I knew it was time where somebody needed someone to step up and that’s what I’m here for.
Different styles. It’s not always going to be up-tempo. We’re going to play against some really good defensive teams so a different style of play but I’m happy we got the win.
On winning a low scoring game...
"We were kind of sluggish throughout the game. We weren't really moving the ball. The ball got stagnant. It allowed them to get some easy buckets and open shots and stuff like that but we stuck with it for four quarters. Every game we are not going to score the ball and make shots every single game, so different games you are going to have to grind them out and try to force a win, especially on the road and we did a good job of that."
On his fourth quarter...
"I just wanted to be aggressive. I didn't really do anything up to that point, so I just tried to be aggressive and make shots and make plays for my team. I got a couple of shots to fall and a couple of lay-ups."
On sitting so long in the 2nd half...
"It felt weird, it felt real weird. I felt rested, well rested. There wasn't a lot of energy, other guys were tired on both teams. I just tried to come in and make an impact on the game in some type of way. He (McHale) did a great job of putting me in at the right time."
On bench play...
"This was an ugly one. The second unit did a great job of getting us back in the game and James (Harden) finished it off in the 4th quarter. It was an ugly one, but we got it, so we are happy to get our fifth in a row. It feels great."
On winning ugly...
"It is nice for us to. Well, it is not nice to miss shots, but it is nice to know that we won hanging our hats on the defensive end tonight."
On James Harden...
"He has always been a great scorer, he is so talented but he is much more than just a great scorer."
On the teams recent play...
"We are getting a rhythm but we have two tough games coming up, so we can't be satisfied. We have to keep going."
On 3rd quarter run...
"I was sitting and watching and cheering. My teammates were moving the ball, playing really unselfish and having their defense create their offense and then creating a flow like we have in the past."
On 3rd quarter run...
"We have been talking about what was going to happen when we missed shots and I guess tonight was the night. In the 3rd quarter we started to play defensively with more intensity and tried to make easy shots and share the ball. That was the way we came back and we were able to make the run."
On James Harden's 4th quarter...
"He was just great. He is able to get to the rim every time he wants. I think when we move the ball the way we did in the second half and we have a player like him it is much easier. He is so unpredictable, it is more like one on one and breaking the first line of defense and creating."
MINNESOTA HEAD COACH RICK ADELMAN
"Disappointing loss. We had control of it in the third quarter and we let it slip it away. Then it was anybody's game and they made the plays."
On Kevin Love having a rough shooting night...
"Yeah he had a rough shooting night, you are right. I don't know why but the whole team did after the third quarter. We just couldn't make a shot, which seems to be a trend."
On the last play of the game...
"Well we had to get a three once it got down. They had a small team and they were switching everything. We got hurt long before that play."
On Houston's run in the third quarter...
"Well I think we missed 12 shots in a row or something. We were up 14 and we couldn't make a shot. They got back in the game and once they got back in the game it was anybody's game."
On James Harden...
"He is tough. He finishes, he gets to the basket and he is a very good player."
On knowing if Harden was this good when he played for Oklahoma City...
"I didn't know him all that well. He had a certain role there (Oklahoma City). He certainly had games there where he did the same thing. When you have Westbrook and Durant you don't see it as much. He is tough, he gets to the basket, makes free throws and makes shots. He is a good all around offensive player."
On when Pek is out do you have to rely on Kevin and see what he can do...
"All I can say is he (Love) is our best player. He got three wide open threes. I think I will take those every time. It's a judgment you have to make at the time and I decided to stay with him."
About not taking crunch time shots
"I saw JJ had quite a rhythm going, he's hit big shots for us in the 4th quarter. I think that has something to do with it.
James Harden's overall play in the 4th quarter
"Oh yeah, he's really coming into his own and knows how to play. He's tough to stop in the pick and roll."
Houston played good defense on the last possession knowing a three would be shot
"Yeah, they were just switching everything and it was pretty tough. They contested Alexey pretty well on that last shot."
Have you ever been in a shooting slump like this?
"No, but people are meant to get out of slumps like this."
The Wolves had success early...
"And we did a good job on Harden. He just got where he needed to be in the 4th quarter. We didn't shoot the ball particularly well in the 1st half and let we them back into the game. It's a game of runs and they just had the final run."
"We went cold, anytime you get cold like that, it was like eight or seven minutes. A team is going to get going. They got a little confidence going and we did a bad job of stopping them there at the end. We did a bad job executing and we missed open shots and that's the game for you."
Harden's 4th quarter
"He stayed aggressive and you have to give him credit. We couldn't stop him in the pick and roll in the middle. He did a great job splitting us and getting to the rim and anytime someone gets to the rim that often it's not going to be a good night.
"He'll be fine, he's our star. I keep telling him that he's the star and has to keep taking shots. He's going to have to shoot it and I'll live with him shooting open threes and I'll live with him posting up and shooting every time if he wants too. He's our star player, it happens to everybody, he'll be back and we'll get it going."
Defensively the team played well
"I think we did a pretty good job defensively as a team to keep them to a low-scoring night but I don't think that we did a pretty good job offensively, especially in that 3rd quarter. It kind of killed us in the game. We shot the ball like 10 shots in a row and we were missing, and they were long shots. This kind of situation I don't think we should do that with that consistency or keep shooting. We should once in awhile drive and try to get a foul and go to the line, if you feel like that kind of streak is going. Those kind of stretches happen to us this season and we just have to keep working on it."
One basket in seven minutes shows the struggle
"You know better, it's just the feeling from the bench when you're watching it when you look at the game. A few attacks in a row we couldn't deliver the ball to the basket and we keep shooting, keep shooting, keep shooting and at some point you have to say 'come on guys, stop shooting, just go in and try to get a foul, just mix it up.' If you can't make the ball, make a three or a long shot you have to mix it up, go in and try to finish as a layup."