Playoffs 2018 West First Round: Rockets (1) vs. Timberwolves (8)

Houston Rockets dig in on defense, then catch fire in Game 2 rout

With James Harden struggling, Gerald Green provides spark as Rockets put Timberwolves in 0-2 hole

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

HOUSTON — The deeper Mike D’Antoni digs into his bag of tricks against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the more interesting the Houston Rockets become.

He’s got an answer for any and everything you throw at him in this first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the proof was found in Houston’s 102-82 win in Game 2.

The Rockets are not some one-trick outfit that lives or dies by the 3-point line. Even with the superstar point guard duo of James Harden and Chris Paul leading the way, they are much more complete than that.

This is a group just as capable of locking down on the defensive end as they are of overwhelming the opposition with one of the vintage 3-point showers D’Antoni’s team have been famous for over the years. That defensive component — the result of assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik and Houston’s role players — was on full display in Wednesday night’s romp against Minnesota.

Even with a much-improved defensive presence, it’s always nice to lean on an old standby if the situation demands it — the way it did in the opening minutes of Game 2 when D’Antoni went searching for the right buttons to push with his starters struggling.

He went to Gerald Green and he kicked off the fireworks, draining four of his seven shots from deep during an electric six-minute stretch of the second quarter that saw the Rockets flip a seven-point deficit into a 16-point lead, a cushion that ballooned to 27 before it was all over.

It’s not just about getting to the playoffs. It’s about getting a championship and bringing a championship to Houston.”

Rockets guard Gerald Green

“Sooner or later,” D’Antoni said, “we’ve got too many guys, somebody’s going to catch fire, you hope. Gerald did, he came in when we were struggling and hit a couple of threes and opened it up. Then once you see the ball go in, once you get the monkey off your back and all that stuff and then we played well for about two and a half quarters. Defensively, we played well the whole game and that’s what it takes.”

Green’s story is just as wild as his style — from his braids to the throwback Warren Moon Houston Oilers jersey he wore to the podium after the game as he sat next to Harden.

A Houston native, Green was waived by the Milwaukee Bucks on the opening day of the season and was working out in his hometown when the Rockets called. They needed another perimeter player after Christmas, when James Harden was lost for seven games in January to a Grade 2 hamstring strain.

Green was signed three days after Christmas and played the same night in Boston, going scoreless in his 11-minute season debut. But he proved to be an indispensable component on what was arguably the deepest and most balanced roster in the league. Now he epitomizes the depth, seasoning and talent on what is perhaps the most peculiarly effective playoff roster.

“To me this is more than a dream,” Green said after recording playoff career-highs in points (21) and rebounds (12).

This moment right here that I’m living right now is everything I dreamed about since I was five or six years old. Right now, I’m staying in the moment but I’m staying locked in because I still have a bigger goal we’re trying to achieve. It’s not just about getting to the playoffs. It’s about getting a championship and bringing a championship to Houston. We’ve still got a long way to go but I feel like I’m as focused as I’ve ever been on my dream.”

Harden and Paul share the same dream, only with the extra burden of being the faces of this Rockets team. They’ve also shared tag-team duties in the rough outing department after the first two games of this series.

Paul struggled in the opener (14 points, four assists, six turnovers), but bounced back Wednesday night with a classic line (27 points, eight assists, one turnover). Meanwhile, Harden shot a miserable 2-for-18 (and 1-for-10 on 3-pointers) in Game 2, finishing with 12 points after his 44-point, eight-assist night in Game 1.

But there’s so much more at work here, explained Harden, that he doesn’t stress over off nights like he once did.

“I’ve got better players around me,” Harden said. “Better players on both ends of the floor that have my back and I know that. So yeah, I don’t worry about me shooting the basketball. I can miss. I missed what, 16 shots today. I’m going to shoot the ball, when you you’ve got guys behind me telling me to ‘keep shooting, that’s your shot.’ I’m going to keep shooting. Then on the defensive end I just have to make sure I’m locked in and create the energy, make sure my rotations are really good and keep communicating.”

Communicating on a roster that seems to fit together perfectly, with the contributions coming from all directions. Young center Clint Capela is an emerging talent and Houston is 44-3 with Harden, Paul and Capela in the lineup.

Veteran forward Trevor Ariza, who has played for six different teams in his 14 seasons, has championship experience (Los Angeles Lakers, 2009) and can work on both ends. Rugged-yet-undersized power forward P.J. Tucker lacks that championship ring, but has defensive chops, too.

Eric Gordon is the reigning Kia Sixth Man of the Year. And D’Antoni can milk quality minutes out of the likes of a physical big man (16-year veteran Nene) and a steady guard (former All-Star Joe Johnson), if needed.

And that doesn’t account for two of D’Antoni’s regulars — forwards Ryan Anderson (left ankle sprain) and Luc Mbah a Moute (dislocated right shoulder) — who were in street clothes tonight.

“They are a good team,” Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins said. “Their team doesn’t consist of one guy. They have a lot of good players that can put the ball in the hoop and lot of people that can create, so I think we did a good job on [Harden]. Now we have to stop the others.”

That might not be nearly as easy as it sounds.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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