HOUSTON – The Timberwolves bade farewell to 14 years without a playoff appearance Sunday night and Rockets superstar James Harden greeted them with a rude hello during a 104-101 victory in Game 1 of a seven-game, first-round series.
Front-runner for league MVP after he led the Rockets to 65 regular-season victories, Harden scored 25 of his 44 points in the game’s last 18 minutes and made seven three-pointers for a Rockets team that shoots them by the gross but struggled to do so early in the game.
“Another day for James,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He has done it all year.”
Losers by 18 points each of the first three times the teams played in the regular season, the Wolves turned a nine-point deficit with 3:50 left into a three-point game twice in the game’s final 26 seconds.
They had the ball and a chance to tie in the final nine seconds, but not only did four-time All-Star guard Jimmy Butler’s desperation shot at the buzzer fall short, it came with his foot on the three-point line so it wouldn’t have tied the score if it had gone in.
They came close, which is something they couldn’t say while getting swept 4-0 by the Rockets in the regular season. But it still wasn’t enough in a league where the winner of a first-round Game 1 takes the series 80.5 percent of the time.
While the Rockets and improved big man Clint Capela badgered Wolves All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns into an eight-point, 3-for-9 shooting night, the Wolves in turn helped limit the free-shooting Rockets to a mere 10 three-pointers made, only two more than the Wolves. They limited the Rockets to four threes made in their first 20 attempts.
The Rockets made twice as many threes (69-34) in their season series against the Wolves.
“We got our feet wet tonight, that’s all it is,” Wolves reserve guard Derrick Rose said. “Seeing what the temperature is and adjust. That’s what the playoffs are all about: adjusting on the go and staying together when we’re having turmoil out there.”
Rose played 24 minutes off the bench after teammate Jeff Teague found foul trouble in the first quarter and Andrew Wiggins did the same in the third. Rose’s 16 points gave the Wolves what Butler called a “burst” his team needed, but neither Rose nor Butler nor Wiggins could hold down Harden.
“It’s got to be a lot better,” Butler said about his defense on Harden. “I have to do my job more effectively on the defensive end. I mean, what did he want? A free throw, a three-pointer, a layup. He got whatever he wanted in that game and I have to be better taking that away from him.”
Harden seemingly toyed with Wolves defenders at times, showing them the ball, then taking it away near the three-point line before he either decided to step back and make a three or drive the ball tenaciously to the rim.
He shot 15-for-26 from the field, including seven of 12 threes. Those seven tied his career playoff high.
“It’s the playoffs,” Harden said. “It’s not about how great you shoot the ball. It’s about getting the win. That’s all that matters.”
The Wolves played their first playoff game since 2004 in the same city where they played their very first after their first seven long, losing seasons. Back then, youngsters Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury made their playoffs debut in a three-game sweep against the two-time champion Rockets still featuring Hakeem Olajuwon.
Wolves backup center Cole Aldrich was an eighth-grader in Bloomington the last time the Wolves played a playoff game in the 2004 Western Conference finals.
On Sunday, Towns received his introduction to this strange thing called the playoffs. It was sobering for him.
“I’ve got to be better on both sides of the basketball,” Towns said. “I’ve got to be better all around.”