Rockets finish Wolves, expect tougher road ahead Global on Apr 26, 2018 04:03 PM
Rockets finish Wolves, expect tougher road ahead
Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket over Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) during the second half in Game 5 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

By Sekou Smith,

HOUSTON -- Three quarters. Three wicked, lights-out quarters in five games is basically all it took for the Houston Rockets to handle their business in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

The Minnesota Timberwolves could not have handled much more against the No. 1 overall seed in these playoffs, the 65-win juggernaut that looked like anything but for long stretches in a series that could have easily ended in a sweep had the Rockets played with the edge they did for most of the regular season they dominated from opening night to the season finale.

But those Rockets have been missing in action for quite some time, according to coach Mike D’Antoni.

In his estimation, it’s been a month or so since his team played the sort of inspired basketball that had become their norm, the kind of basketball that chases away ghost of postseason past for D’Antoni and the Rockets’ two biggest stars, James Harden and Chris Paul.

All three of them came into this season saddled with the added pressure of never reaching their zenith in the postseason. It’s the one black mark on otherwise stellar careers that they all share. This postseason presented them with an opportunity to exorcise those demons, to wipe away the stain with some of the sustained excellence they showed off throughout the 82-game regular-season marathon.

So when his team is up by 19 points and in complete control of a closeout game they were trailing by 10 just minutes earlier, D’Antoni has every right to fuss and cuss in the timeout huddle.

He also has every right to laugh and joke about it later, as he did after the Rockets finished off the Timberwolves 122-104 in Game 5 Wednesday night (Thursday, PHL time) at Toyota Center. He’ll take a 4-1 series victory every time, no matter how bad it might look to a perfectionist’s eye getting there.

“We’re not good enough where we can just pick and choose quarters,” D’Antoni said through a tense smile. “First of all, Minnesota never quit. They’ve got a lot of talent … they’re good. They made us work for everything. So we came up with three good quarters and knocked them out.”

D’Antoni’s right. And that won’t work in the conference semifinals, where the Rockets will take on either Utah or Oklahoma City, who head back to Salt Lake City for Friday’s (Saturday, PHL time) Game 6 of a series the Jazz lead 3-2.

It won’t work in a meat grinder of a postseason that has seen just one team on either side of the conference divide, the New Orleans Pelicans wiped out the Portland Trail Blazers, sweep its first-round series. It won’t work against the Pelicans or the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, who will square off in the other Western Conference semifinal.

Cruise control works when you have the Kia MVP frontrunner (Harden) playing at an otherworldly level, an all-time great point guard covering his back with yet another All-Star caliber season and a supporting cast perfectly suited to thrive on the energy they both generate in D’Antoni’s offensive that always produces stars.

But not in the playoffs. You have to take it up another notch or two with every you step out take deeper and deeper into the postseason pressure cooker. Harden knows as much, having struggled on the biggest stage before, The Finals in 2012 when he was with the Thunder.

“It’s a pretty good step for us, a step in the right direction,” Harden said. “But we still have a long way to go.”

It took the fifth and final game of the series for the Rockets to finally get back to some semblance of the team that ran roughshod through the league all season, and even then they only managed to do it for a half.

They didn’t duplicate the 50-point third quarter that carried them to a Game 4 win in Minnesota, the second-highest scoring quarter in NBA playoff history.

But they got everything they needed outscoring the Timberwolves 30-15 in the 12 minutes after halftime Wednesday night (Thursday, PHL time), reminding themselves and the sellout crowd that turned out to see them that there are next levels that can be reached when this team is locked in on both ends of the floor.

They made a series-high 18 shots from beyond the three-point line and shot 51.1 percent from the floor after shooting 41.6 in the first three games. They also had a franchise-low five turnovers. Harden and Paul had a combined seven points at halftime, but turned it up in that third quarter to jumpstart the comeback.

Harden finished with 24 points and a game-high 12 assists and Paul with 12 and nine, both of them redeeming themselves after uncharacteristic first-half efforts.

As good as they were in the end, it was that aforementioned supporting cast that shined brightest Wednesday.

Clint Capela had a playoff career-high 26 points on 12-for-14 shooting to go along with 15 rebounds, completing his thorough domination of Timberwolves All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who struggled mightily in his postseason debut.

“I thought he was incredible,” D’Antoni said of Capela. “His thrust and force, his rebounding, what he did and the stamina. He played 33 minutes and there was no dip at all. He was incredible. You don’t get much better than that. Now I know he plays the way that we play, but in that role he has, there’s nobody better in the league.”

Veteran forwards Trevor Ariza (16 points, 4-of-7 from deep) and P.J. Tucker (playoff career-high 15 points, 5-of-7 from the field, after scoring 16 points combined in the first four games) got in on the fun, too, as did reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon (series-high 19 points).

Ariza, the one player on the roster who owns a championship ring (Los Angeles Lakers, 2009) acknowledged the importance of handling the business at hand as expediently as possible, knowing that the road ahead is much more grueling than what they experienced against the Timberwolves.

“I think it’s good, it will give us time to rest and give us time to work on things that we didn’t do so well,” he said. “But the fact that we got it over with, it’s an encouraging thing.”

Given what lies ahead for any team with championship ambitions, but especially these Rockets, a little time to reflect and refocus before the next challenge might be exactly what’s needed.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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