Rockets run away from Timberwolves, put defensive acumen on full display

Chris Paul hit a three off a beautiful over-the-shoulder pass from James Harden. Two possessions later, he caused a travel by smartly stepping in Jeff Teague’s path. A couple of minutes later, he blew past Tyus Jones and kicked it out to P.J. Tucker, who knocked down a corner three through a foul to give the Rockets their biggest lead of the night up to that point, 71-46, over Minnesota.

Sequences like those — featuring smart perimeter defending plus a terrific supporting cast around Houston’s All-Star backcourt — is what makes these Rockets so so difficult to beat. The Timberwolves found that out the hard way in Game 2 at the Toyota Center, shooting just 38.8 percent and committing 16 turnovers en route to a 102-82 loss. They’ll head back to the Target Center down 2-0 in their first playoff appearance since 2004, hoping to figure out how to somehow get their offense going and get their best player — Karl-Anthony Towns — more involved.

While many of Houston’s performances have been offensive masterpieces, much of Wednesday’s game was anything but. The Rockets as a team shot just 36.5 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from deep. Harden, the hero of Game 1 with 44 points, shot just two for 18 from the field. Eric Gordon went three for 13. Minnesota led 23-18 after one quarter.

Last year, that would have spelled doom for a Houston squad that leaned heavily on its bearded superstar and lost in six games to the Spurs in the second round. But that’s what makes this year’s team the stalwart that it is. Paul rebounded from a poor first game to piece together a complete all-around game, scoring 27 points on 10 for 18 shooting and dishing out eight assists. Tucker splashed a couple of threes and provided his signature harassing defense all over the floor, guarding all five positions and sliding over expertly on pick-and-rolls. Gerald Green, a mid-season addition by Houston GM Daryl Morey, provided a spark off the bench with 19 points (five threes) and nine rebounds. And while Minnesota missed more than its fair share of its open looks, Houston’s defense played a large part in holding the Wolves to a season-low 82 points.

The Rockets’ defense is perhaps overlooked thanks to their incredible offense, but it nonetheless deserves major praise, especially after this contest. The Rockets finished sixth in the league with a defensive rating of 103.8 this regular season just one offseason after finishing 18th in the same category last year. On Wednesday, the Wolves felt the full wrath of that swarming defense. Towns scored five points — the second-fewest of his career — and didn’t even play in the fourth quarter. The Wolves’ best perimeter scorer, Jimmy Butler, attempted just six shots. Andrew Wiggins finished with 13 points on 14 shots. Nemanja Bjelica led the way with 16 points off the bench, but most of those came with the game well out of reach. With Clint Capela anchoring the paint, Tucker, Paul and Trevor Ariza providing smart, pesky defense on the wings and even Harden getting in on the act with three blocks, Minnesota had no answer offensively.

Houston will head to Minneapolis up 2-0 and coming off a very convincing win. The Rockets got Paul going and won comfortably despite Harden — likely the league MVP — having one of his worst shooting nights ever. The Timberwolves, with their first home playoff game in over a decade upcoming, will certainly make some adjustments, and that starts with Towns being more effective and deliberate on the offensive end. But it’s a young team with many players making their playoff debuts, and on Wednesday night, the difference between the two squads was more apparent than ever before.

Chris Paul led the way for Houston with James Harden struggling. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Chris Paul led the way for Houston with James Harden struggling. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

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