Timberwolves Keep it Close but Fall Late to Harden, Rockets in Game 1

Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday night, in the Timberwolves first playoff game in over a decade, several things went right. Andrew Wiggins got off to a strong start, Derrick Rose brought a spark off the bench and Jeff Teague made some clutch buckets down the stretch.

On top of all that, the Wolves held the No. 1 seed Houston Rockets to 10-of-37 shooting in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round series. For the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA, that attempt count is on-par, but the makes were well below. And for a team that stuck around the bottom-five in defensive rating all season, that was a feat.

And while several of those attempts were unordinary misses for Houston, some of it featured some cases of good Minnesota perimeter defense and well-defended pick-and-rolls — the latter mostly in the second half.

But even when a number of things go right for the Timberwolves against a top-two offense and a top-10 defense that isn’t quite clicking, the Rockets still have the expected MVP as a hilariously convenient fallback option.

James Harden had 44 points in total, scoring 13 in the fourth and going on a personal 11-point scoring streak in that stretch.

“I thought there were several plays in which I thought we defended well and [Harden] made it,” Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “James is that type of player and we’ve seen it all year, very difficult to guard.”

Harden’s primary assignment from Minnesota was Jimmy Butler, who played a weirdly low-key role in Minnesota’s offensive success, finishing with just 13 points of 4-of-11 shooting. On the defensive end, Butler struggled — like many do — to stop Harden in any situation.

And there are some shots Harden made that most people on planet earth have no business even shooting in the first place — let alone a playoff game. He truly does not care if there’s a hand in his face.

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And despite Harden’s clearcut dominance against even the best defensive players, Butler still thought he could have done more.

“It’s got to be a lot better. I’ve got to do my job more effectively on the defensive end,” Butler said after the game. “What do you want, a free throw? A 3-pointer? A layup? He got whatever he wanted in that game and I’ve got to be better at taking that away from him.”

Harden wasn’t the only problem for Minnesota, and Butler wasn’t the only one saying he needed to be better. As Clint Capela would go on to score 24 points in the game — 20 in the first half — Karl-Anthony Towns would go on to score just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting from the field.

More importantly, the Houston pick-and-roll that’s killed Minnesota all year long came to haunt them again. In past matchups between these two teams, it’s been most deadly through the 3-point shot. Even though that wasn’t falling, Capela’s movements towards the rim were still impactful.

Harden’s shots were going in, and part of that had to do with Capela’s early success at the rim. Harden’s ability to draw fouls and score at the rim makes it hard for Towns to pick between helping and staying on his man.

Harden’s vision doesn’t help matters for the Wolves.

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Towns held Capela down a bit more in the second half, but that early action killed the Wolves in to start the game, and it allowed Houston to build a double-digit early almost immediately.

The lead was brought back down to earth in the first, in large part because of some early success from Wiggins, and eventually from Rose. The pair led the team in scoring with 18 and 16 respectively — but while they both had some major impact in the middle quarters, neither stepped up to make it an interesting game as it got close late.

He got some help from Teague, Butler and others, but the pair of them disappeared in the clutch moments and Harden began to take off.

Part of that might have been on the players themselves, but part of it may well have been Houston’s notoriously strong defense.

“Against a high-powered team, you have to stay with them the entire game,” Rose said. “I remember in the playoffs against Miami (Heat, when Rose with Chicago), the only thing you want to do is stay close until the fourth quarter. Or if you get the lead before, sustain it and try to make it larger for the bench and for your team.”

As the game got close down the stretch, Harden continued to hit. But after a turnover with the Wolves down just three with just over eight seconds to go, they opted to go to a guy that had been quiet for most of the night.

But their reasoning was fairly justified — Harden might be the NBA’s MVP this year, but Butler is Minnesota’s clear-cut MVP.

He missed the shot — and didn’t even get off a true 3-point attempt — but his confidence was apparent.

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After the game, and not surprisingly, he kept the confidence going when asked about the shot.

“It came up short,” he said. “I’ll shoot it again if I get the opportunity.”

When factoring in the regular season, this is by far the closest game the Timberwolves have played with Houston this season. But on a night when both Ryan Anderson and Luc Mbah a Moute are out, the best 3-point shooting team is missing 3s, some non-primary Minnesota options are hitting and they still lose, it can be hard to see any future games in a positive light.

Anderson and Mbah a Moute could be back soon, they’ll likely hit more treys in Game 2 and Rose and Wiggins haven’t proven they can be counted on in consecutive playoff games yet. On top of all that, Harden is sure to keep his neverending attack alive until the series is over.

The good news is they proved to themselves that they can stick with this team, even on nights when both Butler and Towns aren’t themselves. Wiggins proved to himself that he can make a two-way impact in a playoff game. Rose proved to himself that he can still contribute on a playoff team to some degree.

The Timberwolves now know they can hack it with the best regular season team in the NBA. It’s now a matter of whether they can do it again.

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