HOUSTON – In Sunday’s Game 1 of a first-round playoff series, Houston Rockets made a mere two more of their beloved three-pointers than the Timberwolves and still walked away three-point winners after a last-seconds scare.
In Wednesday’s Game 2, Rockets superstar James Harden made just two of his 18 shots from the field three nights after he scored 44 points and still his team won, this time routing the Wolves 102-82 at Toyota Center.
A team that scored with such ease but was so defensively challenged during the regular season now founds itself struggling offensively after All-Stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler combined to score just 16 points, five fewer than they even did Sunday.
“It’s the reverse, right?” Wolves point guard Jeff Teague, who proposed they play faster, with more pace and free. “All year we talked about our defense when our offense was clicking. We have to figure out a way to get it going.”
The series heads to Target Center for Saturday’s Game 3 with the eighth-seeded Wolves trailing top-seeded Houston 2-0.
This time, the Rockets’ Harden-Chris Paul switched roles from Sunday when Paul came back from a six-turnover game then and delivered an acrobatic 27-point, eight-assist performance while former Timberwolves forward Gerald Green scored 21 points off the bench.
Three nights after the Rockets went 10-for-37 on threes, they shot 52 of them in Game 2 and made 16, or 11 more than the Wolves’ made five. That’s a 33-point difference, if you’re keeping score at home.
Paul’s play helped turn the game in the first half after they trailed by nine points early, but then went on a 28-5 run fueled as well by Green’s three-point shooting and the Rockets’ defense that left the Wolves reeling.
“Sooner or later, we’ve got too many guys,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Somebody’s going to catch fire, you hope. Gerald did.”
Searching for perimeter players who could shoot the three, the Wolves invited Green to their free-agent camp last September, but he said “that was the last invitation I got from their organization.”
While Green made five of the Rockets’ threes, Harden struggled to make a shot from the field after he had scored those 44 points in Game 1.
“Let’s not get it confused,” Butler said. “James, he just missed a lot of shots that he normally makes.”
Harden’s shooting night didn’t matter, not after Paul provided the pulse for a lopsided 37-17 second quarter and the Rockets led by as many as 27 points after halftime.
“It was better with Harden,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said, “but it wasn’t better with Paul. So that’s a concern.”
Towns took nine shots and scored eight points in Sunday’s Game 1 and TNT analysts savaged them on national television for not exploiting mismatches when the Rockets switched every screen defensively, leaving smaller players to defend Towns often.
Harden and D’Antoni both predicted the Wolves would get Towns more involved Wednesday and they did. He took nine shots by midway through the second quarter, then didn’t take another one the rest of a night when he was double or tripled team at nearly every turn. Most of those nine shots were outside of the paint and he missed the last seven after he had made his first two.
Thibodeau said again that Towns has to be more active, play with more energy, run the floor harder.
“He’s learning,” Thibodeau said. “Karl’s a very talented player. He’ll figure it out.”
Towns finished with a mere five points after Thibodeau pulled his starters in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach while Andrew Wiggins led the Wolves in shots (14) and points (13). Butler went just 3-for-6 and scored 11 points himself.
“We’ll be OK,” Butler said. “I think we have to do more, me and him. Along with everybody else. It’s never just one person or two people or three people. But we are a big part of it, though. I will say that. So it goes for both us. We have to be better at both ends of the court.”
Thibodeau said his team got “frustrated” after a successful first quarter went all “downhill” from there.
“No, you can’t be frustrated,” Towns said. “There’s no time to be frustrated. Too much focus and positive energy have to go the right way. Ain’t no time for negativity and ain’t no time for frustration and ain’t no time to hang your head down. We’ve got to move on to the next game.”
The Wolves still led 25-18 in the second quarter’s opening moments before the Rockets scored 28 of the next 33 points. They turned that nine-point deficit into a lead that grew to as much as 16 points before halftime before they really ran away in the second half.
They did so with Paul bouncing back from Sunday’s six-turnover game – just as D’Antoni said he would – and Green making four of the Rockets’ eight first-half three pointers. And they did so despite Harden’s lousy shooting night.
“I’ve got better players around (me), better players on both ends of the floor who have my back and I know that,” Harden said. “I don’t worry about shooting the basketball. I can miss. I missed what, 16 shots today? I’m going to shoot the ball.”
The Wolves have three days to adjust and prepare for Game 3 Saturday night at Target Center.
“They did their job,” Towns said. “They protected home court. Now it’s time to do our job.”
NBA playoffs houston 102, wolves 82
Game 3: 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Target Center (FSN, ESPN) • Rockets lead 2-0