9:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Rockets -10.5, Over/Under: 212.5
It’s rare that a One/Eight Matchup can be a tightly-contested one, but that seems to be what we have in the form of the Top-Seeded Houston Rockets squaring off with the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game Two of their First Round Series from the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. There was probably no team that benefitted less from the wild, scrum in the Western Conference Playoff Rankings than the Timberwolves (47-35, 8th in Western Conference), who needed to grind out a 112-106 Overtime Victory over the Denver Nuggets in the Regular Season Finale in order to secure their pass to the Postseason, breaking the longest-running drought in the NBA at Fourteen Years. However, it almost never happened, with one, lone injury nearly ruining the entire campaign. In one of the bigger Offseason Moves, the Wolves acquired Jimmy Butler (22.2 PTPS, 47.4% FG, 35.0% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 4.9 AST, 2.0 SL, 0.4 BLK, 23.7 PER) in Free Agency, along with a slew of other veterans, in an attempt to finally unlock the vast potential of young cornerstones such as Karl-Anthony Towns (21.3 PTS, 54.5% FG, 42.1% 3FG, 12.3 REB, 2.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.4 BLK, 24.9 PER) and to a lesser degree Andrew Wiggins (17.7 PTS, 43.8% FG, 33.1% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.6 BLK, 13.0 PER). For all intents and purposes, this team was gelling well, ascending to as high as Third in the Western Conference, owning a 36-25 Record entering the All-Star Break, before Butler suffered a torn MCL, sidelining him for Eightteen Consecutive Games. Needless to say, but this was a HUGE development for Minnesota, who managed to go just 9-9 without the 4-Time All-Star, falling all the way to the bottom of the Playoff Ladder out West, needing that aforementioned triumph over the Nuggets just to set up this meeting with the Rockets. And even though they ultimately found themselves on the wrong end of Game One’s 104-101 Defeat, there were long stretches of the affair in which Tom Thibodeau’s charges controlled matters, which must provide a sense of optimism as the Series progresses. For starters, they managed to contain Houston’s lethal Three-Point Shooting, limiting the Home Side to just 10-of-37 Shooting from beyond the Arc (27.0%), while handling them on the Boards (Plus-10 REB), and slowing down their Ball-Movement (15 AST). Furthermore, they were plenty aggressive at attacking the Rockets’ reliance on switching defensively, resulting in a wealth of opportunities at the Charity Stripe, where they knocked down 23-of-28 Free-Throws. With that said, the biggest takeaway for many was the simple fact that they were able to keep things so close despite Towns’ poor showing on the offensive end of the court, scoring just Eight Points on just 3-of-9 Shooting. Now it’s downright puzzling as to how a Center of his caliber can play over Forty Minutes in a Playoff Game and attempt just Nine Shots, particularly when Thibodeau and his Staff can put him in so many favorable matchups thanks to Houston’s aforementioned switching. In Four Regular Season Meetings with them, the All-Star Big averaged 23.8 Points on 16.3 Field Goal Attempts, along with 14.8 Rebounds, and 2.5 Blocks. In the same vein as past great Bigs such Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Hakeem Olajuwon, this kid needs to touch the basketball on just about every single possession, so that his presence can open up opportunities for the rest of his teammates. Case in point, after scoring Four Consecutive Points and cutting the lead to just Three with Thirty Seconds left to play, the Wolves traveled the length of the floor, gifting the ball to Butler, who dribbled, turned his back to the defender, turned back to create space, and attempted an awkward, contested jumper from the Arc that barely grazed the bottom of the rim, as Thibodeau could be seen on the sideline lamenting that there wasn’t a better shot to be had. Get the ball to KAT, Thibs. Do it before it’s too late and you find yourselves heading back to Minneapolis trailing 0-2.
Meanwhile, exactly how you interpret the Rockets’ (65-17, 1st in Western Conference) performance in Game One’s 104-101 Victory depends entirely on just what kind of person you happen to be. Are you an Optimist or a Pessimist? Do you take a Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty Approach? There is plenty of room for both, as Mike D’Antoni’s charges were certainly far from their best on Sunday Night, though nonetheless managed to take a 1-0 Lead over the Timberwolves in their First Round Series. So let’s start off with the Optimistic Approach, shall we? Houston followed up a Franchise-Record 65-Win Season with a dramatic victory over an opponent who when at full strength is far better than their Record/Seeding would indicate. While D’Antoni’s teams have traditionally struggled in the Postseason when the Pace slows down and the Action get more physical, they managed to best the Wolves at their own game when it was all said and done. The Home Side relegated Minnesota to 43.8% Shooting from the Field, including just 8-of-23 from beyond the Arc (34.8%), all the while making life hard on the aforementioned Towns and Butler, keeping the All-Star Tandem in check with a combined Twenty-One Points on 7-of-20 Shooting from the Field (35.0%), including 2-of-7 from Downtown (28.6%). And then there was James Harden (30.4 PTS, 44.9% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 8.8 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.7 BLK, PER), who EXPLODED for Forty-Four Points on 15-of-26 Shooting (57.7%), including 7-of-12 from Three (58.3%), along with Four Rebounds, Eight Assists, and a pair of Steals. It was a vintage performance from the MVP Front-Runner, who powered a late, Fourth Quarter Run in which the Hosts strung together Nine Unanswered Points and never relinquished the lead. This game also showed what kind of resiliency this team possesses, which is significant when you compare it to previous incarnations of the Rockets, particularly last year’s, which crumbled against the short-handed San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals. In a nip-and-tuck affair featuring a number of lead changes, Harden drained a series of clutch Three-Pointers late in the final stanza, quelling any final push that the Visitors could make. With that said, if you count yourself a member of the Houston faithful, then you may want to refrain from reading the rest of this article, for now we’ll get into the pessimistic side of their performance. First and foremost, as great as Harden was (and he was phenomenal), Sunday’s win was far too reminiscent of last year’s unit that overly relied on the Bearded One’s exploits. A huge reason for their success during the Regular Season this year was the addition of grittier, hard-nosed veterans, none more so than Chris Paul (18.6 PTS, 46.0% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 7.9 AST, 1.7 STL, 24.4 PER), but apart from No. 13, the rest of the Rockets’ Rotation was fairly mundane. Sans Harden, the Home Side accounted for Sixty Points on 24-of-57 Shooting (42.1%), including a miserable 3-of-25 from Downtown (12.0%), with Paul checking in with just Fourteen Points on 5-of-14 Shooting (35.7%), including 1-of-6 from Three (16.7%), and more Turnovers (6) than Assists (4). Paul’s excellent synergy with Harden is one of the prime reasons for their wildly successful Regular Season, but the 8-Time All-NBA Point Guard must bring a more concerted effort to the table moving forward, for his boneheaded, errant, full-court pass inside of the final Thirty Seconds gave the Wolves an opportunity to send the tie to Overtime. Finally, though they did a tremendous job of nullifying Towns and exploiting Butler, who still looks to be working himself back into shape, Houston wasn’t nearly as successful at slowing down the remainder of Minnesota’s Rotation; the aforementioned Wiggins (18 PTS, 6 REB) beat his defender off the dribble with regularity, while Jeff Teague (15 PTS, 9 REB, 8 AST) tormented P.J. Tucker throughout the affair, with Jamal Crawford (15 PTS, 3-of-7 3FG) and the resurrected Derrick Rose (16 PTS, 4 AST) providing productive minutes off the Bench.