Super-charged Rockets want to wipe out Wolves quickly
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 23: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 23, 2018 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Houston and Minnesota couldn’t have taken more diametrically opposed routes to their first-round matchup.
The Rockets have been locked in from the start of training camp. They opened the season with an upset of the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on ring night, spoiling the banner-raising ceremony for the champs and serving notice that they were going for the top spot in 2017-18. The best regular season in franchise history could also net James Harden his first Kia MVP, thus adding even more pressure for the best team in basketball.
The Timberwolves, on the other hand, needed overtime on the final night of the regular season to punch their playoff ticket, ending the second longest drought in NBA history at 13 seasons. Their reward for finally getting back to the postseason, of course, is taking on a Rockets juggernaut led by the two-headed point guard monster of Harden and Chris Paul, a crew that has been demolishing the competition all season. Youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins of the Wolves have been dreaming about the playoffs, but Harden and Paul aim to make their first time a nightmare.
3 quick questions and answers
1. Can Jimmy Butler slow James Harden down? He’s going to try. Butler, one of the NBA's best two-way players, is likely going into the series believing that the Timberwolves' only chance to win is if he figures out a way to limit Harden’s effectiveness. But that's easier said than done. And as good of a defender as Butler can be, he’ll have to dial up an epic effort to bother the player Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni calls the “greatest offensive player he’s ever seen.”
2. What (or who) makes this Rockets team any different than last year's squad? Well, for starters, veterans Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute (who is out for the first round with a dislocated shoulder) and Joe Johnson weren’t a part of this team's Western Conference semifinal loss in 2017. The toughness, savvy and versatility of the Rockets’ offseason and in-season additions (Gerald Green in particular) will help Harden better navigate the postseason landscape and alleviate some of the pressure he felt in 2016-17.
3. Which coach has more riding on this series: Mike D’Antoni or Tom Thibodeau? Despite objecting to the notion of the Rockets’ season only being validated by a deep playoff run, D’Antoni actually has more riding on this postseason than Thibodeau. He’s coaching his best team and the defending-champion Warriors have never looked more vulnerable than they do now. Butler’s injury changed the expectations for the Timberwolves, whose main objective this season was to crash the playoff party and snap their 14-year drought. The pressure on Thibs was to make the field. Anything else is a bonus.
The number to know
1.22 -- James Harden scored 1.22 points per possession on isolations, the highest rate, by a wide margin, among 31 players who averaged at least two isolation possessions per game. And Harden averaged a league-high 10 isolations per contest. Furthermore, Chris Paul ranked fourth with 5.1 isolations per game and was the second most efficient isolation scorer at 1.10 points per possession. The Rockets' two stars will find open shooters if you bring an extra defender to the ball (they assisted on more than 500 3-pointers between them), but they're also happy to play one-on-one against a defense that switches screens. -- John Schuhmann
Making the pick
The Rockets didn’t grind the way they did all season to stumble out of the gate. They are the cream of the crop this season and they’re eager to prove as much against a Timberwolves team that will put up a fight. But the Timberwolves would have to transform into something other than the flawed crew that needed five extra minutes on the season's final night just to make the playoffs. Rockets in 5.
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