When Houston came out of the halftime break and put on the offensive clinic that sealed Minnesota’s fate, many words ran through my head, and surprisingly, all of them are fit to print. I root for the Timberwolves – of course – but sometimes basketball is so beautiful that even when bad things happen to my favorite team, I can’t help but appreciate it. In the first 3:29 of the second half, Harden & friends pushed their lead to 19 points with a 16-to-7 run, which sounds relatively unremarkable. It was the way it happened, though – the Rockets became a well-oiled machine, a freight train, a hurricane, a buzzsaw, something created in the nebulous netherworld of a gaming console to destroy everything in its path.
In basketball video games, the pass button is your friend, especially in transition, provided your timing is right. The ball zips around, and even if your teammate has his head turned, or is running the wrong way, he’ll find a way to corral the pass. In real life, such precise ball-sharing takes time, practice, patience, and the sublimation of five egos to the common good, unlike video games, where the omnipotent player on the joysticks calls every shot, pass, and dribble. At the start of the third quarter, Wolves turnovers and missed shots led to Rocket fastbreak opportunities, and video game animations came to life. Rubio, Brewer or Martin would gamble for a steal in the backcourt, and Houston would attack, sensing the advantage, and the ball would ping – ping – ping between them, until it found Asik for a dunk, Parsons for a runner, or Harden or Beverley for a three-pointer.
We probably should have seen it coming, given the Wolves’ emotional victory over the Mavericks the night before, as well as Minnesota’s terrible track record versus Houston this season. The Rockets have led by at least 18 points in each of their three games versus the Wolves in 2013-14, all victories. Back in November, a Harden-less Houston notched a wire-to-wire win over the Wolves, who were at full strength. In February, the Minnesota kept it tight until collapsing in the 4th quarter at home. Last night, the Howard-less Rockets trailed 41-31 in the 2nd quarter, but finished the game on a 98-to-65 scoring run. In every matchup this year, all five of Kevin McHale’s starters have reached double figures in points, while Rick Adelman’s bench has made just 37% of their shots. J.J. Barea is now 3-for-24 from the field (13%) in three games against Houston, including 1-of-5 with 4 turnovers last night.
But perhaps the most glaring difference between the two teams can be found on the perimeter. The Wolves had no answer for Chandler Parsons or James Harden. The handsome guy racked up 19 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. The bearded guy was especially on fire from 9:50 to 6:30 in the 2nd quarter, when the Rockets erased the Wolves’ 10-point lead with a 17-to-0 run. Harden contributed 10 points and an assist during the blitzkrieg, feasting on Minnesota’s curious lineup of Barea – Budinger – Mbah a Moute – Hummel – Cunningham. The Rockets followed the Bobcats’ blueprint from Friday night; when Cunningham’s the tallest man on the floor for the Wolves: drive to the lane and kick it out. It’ll either be a layup, a foul or an open three. Charlotte has fewer good shooters and finishers at the rim, so the consequences weren’t as dire. Against Houston, it was Minnesota’s fatal flaw.
The bright spots for Minnesota included Kevin Love, Gorgui Dieng, and nobody else. The two combined to score 51 points on 35 shots; the rest of the team tallied 55 points on 52 attempts. Love finished with 29 points (in 29 minutes) on 10-of-19 shooting, including 5-of-9 from deep, adding 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Dieng scored 22 points, grabbed 21 boards, dished out 4 assists, went 10-of-11 from the free throw line, and continued to build on his strong beginning to life as an NBA starter.
Thursday posed Gorgui’s toughest test since he stepped into the starting lineup for Nikola Pekovic – with all due respect to Aaron Gray (Kings) and the Dalembert-Wright-Blair trio (Mavericks). On one hand, the rookie managed to pull down 8 offensive rebounds, and 21 boards overall, largely against the tough, physical Omer Asik, who was starting in place of Dwight Howard. On the other hand, he managed to have five of his shot attempts blocked, three by Asik, two by Terrence Jones. Asik is also a fairly average rebounder, per SportVu, and Houston ranks in the bottom third of the league in team rebounding overall, dampening the mood a bit on Dieng’s board-crashing outburst.
All that aside, it’s encouraging to see Dieng play extended minutes without fouling (9 personal fouls in 100-plus minutes over his three starts), as well as his (occasionally) soft hands, good interior passing, hustle, and the early iterations of post moves. There were very, very few positives to derive from the game – Gorgui was one of them.
There’s actually not much else to say about Rockets-Wolves. Houston’s much better. The Wolves were on the second game of a back-to-back, on the road, following an emotional win the night before. Playoff teams find ways to compete, and possibly win, in situations like that. Minnesota isn’t there yet. Rather than a 2k14 juggernaut, Minnesota’s a lot more like mini-bosses in role playing game: pesky enough to be annoying on most levels, but ultimately beatable.