The atmosphere at the Toyota Center was as electric in Game 2 as it was in Game 1. Between the flashy intro that included both fireworks and literal fire displays, celebrities seated courtside and an eruption of noise when the national anthem singer would get to “and the ROCKETS’ red glare”, the playoffs felt like an event for the Houston Rockets.
More importantly, there was an atmosphere of confidence in the building. A fan even won tickets to a “future Houston Rockets playoff game” during a time out.
The Rockets and their fans don’t just want more than this series, they expect more.
A three-point loss by the Timberwolves in Game 1 moved Houston towards their next step, but the Wolves didn’t make it easy.
The Timberwolves didn’t have good production from Jimmy Butler or Karl-Anthony Towns in that game, but still nearly knocked off the No. 1 seed in Game 1 on the road.
“We know how great they are. I thought we played good enough to win the game — we got the lead with six minutes to go,” Tom Thibodeau said before the game. “As I’ve said before, often times, these games come down to one or two possessions.”
So for Game 2, hope was there. But by the second quarter, the Rockets had evaporated it. Their 102-82 win was clear early in the game — the Wolves had no answers when the lead started to build.
If the game came down to one or two possessions, those possessions came in the second quarter. The Wolves actually led in the first by six points — and as many as nine in the quarter — but fell in the following quarter 37-17.
From there, the game never got better. While MVP-favorite James Harden had the worst playoff game of his career, the rest of the team picked up the slack. After making seven of the team’s 10 3s on Sunday night, he made just one of ten in Game 2.
This killed the Rockets’ 3-point percentage, which was again in the low 30s — but when removing Harden’s deep ball numbers, it improves it to a more respectable 35.6 percent on the night.
The contrast between the two games showcases exactly what makes the Rockets so dangerous. In Game 1, it was Harden at his finest, with some first-half help from Capela.
In Game 2, it was the opposite. Harden was flat-out bad offensively and Capela only took six shots. It was the rest of the team that stepped up — most notably Chris Paul, who had a bad Game 1 — in Harden’s absence.
“James [Harden] still because of who he is, still puts a lot of pressure on you and that’s the great value of having a guy like Chris Paul coupled with him,” Thibodeau said. “Chris was…Chris had an unbelievable game.”
Paul finished with 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field. More importantly, he only had one turnover — a massive switch from his six-turnover Game 1 performance.
But even with Paul’s performance — complemented with good shooting nights from Gerald Green and gritty two-way play from Trevor Ariza — the numbers suggest the Wolves did enough defensively to win the game. They held Houston to 102 points — a big drop-off from their regular-season average — held them to 30 percent 3-point shooting and did a relatively decent job keeping them off the free throw line.
“Their team doesn’t consist of one guy,” Andrew Wiggins said in a postgame press conference. “They have a lot of good players that can put the ball in the hoop and a lot of people that can create.”
Wiggins played well, but in a weird twist of events, Wednesday night’s game was lost in horrific fashion because the Timberwolves mostly forgot how to score.
The Rockets might have shot 30.8 percent from deep, but the Wolves shot 27.8 percent. More importantly, the Rockets scored 65 points off 3s and free throws.
Jeff Teague made a troubling discovery about the stat sheet after the game.
“We’ve got to play with more pace. I think they shot more 3s and free throws than we had shots.”
This was true. The Wolves had 31 made field goals. The Rockets had 16 made 3s and 16 made free throws. And even when adding the five 3s and 15 free throws the Wolves hit themselves, the numbers start to illustrate why the Rockets at their best might be too much for the Wolves.
When eliminating 2-pointers altogether, and only counting 3s and free throws, the Rockets beat the Wolves 64-30. When two teams are shooting poorly, the team that’s making 3s and getting to the line will win.
In almost every case this season, that team has been the Rockets. The Wolves are a good free throw shooting team, but remained towards the bottom in 3-point makes and attempts.
Even worse, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler had their second-straight collective bad game. Butler is only on his fifth game back from meniscus surgery and reports surfacing about an injured wrist have recently come into play.
Past the less-than-stellar numbers, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what looks off about Butler’s game, likely because his struggles come from what isn’t happening. There are fewer plays from him at the rim, fewer dives for loose balls — plays that make Butler who he is (a star two-way player) have disappeared in the playoffs.
But when asked about it after the game, Butler contended he was fine.
“I’m okay,” he said. “Maybe I do gotta be more aggressive, assertive. I just always try to take what the game gives me.”
The assertion that Butler takes the shots that the defense provides him could be a testament to the Rockets defense, who finished the season sixth in defensive rating. And as Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni mentioned after the game, they were the third best defensive team after the All-Star break, according to NBA.com/stats.
But just like Butler, Towns seemed okay with the shots he took. Towns is now 5-for-18 in the playoffs, albeit with completely different routes to bad games. After a Game 1 where he hardly touched the ball at all, the Wolves tried to get him the ball more often early. He struggled to make anything happen and eventually the game got away.
Still, Towns liked the process of his individual productivity. It echoed Butler’s philosophy on scoring.
“The flow of the game tells us what to do,” Towns said. “We have our game plan and if we stick to our game plan then we go from there.”
But the scoring troubles of the team’s two stars might have been the only on-court consistency of the game. Otherwise, it was all completely different. After 31 combined points from Derrick Rose and Jamal Crawford off the bench in Game 1, the pair struggled mightily in the second half, the pair scored zero field goals in the first half. They both got it going in fourth quarter garbage time, but not a moment before.
Short of a second straight Harden show, Wednesday’s loss was about as worst-case-scenario as it could have gotten for the Timberwolves. When a set of Rockets role players are hitting and Paul is setting them up with elite-level defense on top of it, they are impossible to beat.
The Timberwolves will head home to a Target Center that has sold out more games this season than any since 1991-92. They’ll return to a loyal crowd, excited to see its first slate of playoff basketball home games in well over a decade.
Unlike the Rockets home fanbase, they aren’t expecting anything past this round. If Game 1 gave them any shred of hope, Game 2 shut it down for now.
If the Timberwolves still want to make something of this series, they’ll need to do it on their home floor, fireworks or not.
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