Houston Rockets Clinch Playoffs & Set Their Sights On West’s 2nd Seed
By Lee Golden
James Harden: 33 Pts, 8 Asts, 4 Rebs, 5 Stls
Andrew Wiggins: 31 Pts, 4 Asts, 4 Rebs
A total of 12 players (eight Minnesota Timberwolves, four Houston Rockets) from both teams sat out with injuries tonight but the two ball clubs did not disappoint in putting on a show. If you are a Timberwolves’ fan, you were satisfied with tonight’s outcome. Their star protege displayed great promise and with the loss, their tanking efforts prevailed.
If you’re a Rockets fan and you consider the variables, you’re not quite as thrilled. Despite Josh Smith posting a near triple-double, James Harden scoring more than 30 points again (31st time this season) and the Rockets recording a season high in three-pointers (20) made and assists (34), you’re not pleased. Why? Simply because Houston only won by ten points at home…against the second worst team in the league…that only had eight players suit up for the game. That’s not much to cheer about if you ask me.
On the bright side, Dwight Howard played 20 minutes and registered 18 points (8-9 FGs), four rebounds, two steals and one block. He sheltered the rim exceptionally and helped limit Minnesota to only six offensive rebounds. Before the game, Terrence Jones paid a visit to the locker room and told reporters, “If all goes well, get a couple of practices in me, I could be out there as early as next week.” Donatas Motiejunas missed his first game of the season and will be sidelined for another one or two weeks with back pain. Both players should be primed for the playoffs in which the Rockets (49-23) may hold the second seed with tonight’s win over Minnesota and Memphis’ (50-23) loss to Golden State.
Coming into the game, James Harden was responsible for 25.9 percent of the Rockets’ points this season. That ranks third highest among Rockets’ players of all-time. The two former players ahead of him are Moses Malone (29 percent) in 1981-82 and Hakeem Olajuwon (26.3 percent) in 1993-94. Both players went on to win MVP those years as well. Harden has a tremendous chance keep that tradition alive.
Josh Smith started the game with a turnover which would summarize Houston’s first half. But, when they were not turning the ball over, they were either lobbing the alley-oop to Howard or lining up a three. Solid perimeter defense aided the Rockets to capture an 11-2 advantage in the opening three minutes of the game. They produced a balanced attack including a pair of three pointers from Jason Terry. Once Howard went to the bench with eight minutes left in the first, the Timberwolves began aggressively attacking the rim. Both teams traded baskets but Houston continued to lead Minnesota by nine at the end of the period.
Howard jumped back in the lineup but Harden rode the bench to begin the second. Smith started the quarter filling up the stat sheet in all categories. He knocked down a three pointer, crashed the glass and set Howard up for back-to-back slams on a 9-2 run. To answer, Chase Budinger, Justin Hamilton and Sean Kilpatrick continued to penetrate the lane and get high percentage baskets. Harden came back in the game with an 11 point lead and seven minutes to go. Andrew Wiggins checked back in too and put the team on his back. He scored or assisted on the next 14 points to close the quarter but still trailed Houston 50-60 at the half. The Rockets handed the Timberwolves 13 turnovers, but their offense still remained too much to conquer.
In the second half, the Rockets loaded their cannons and began firing from distance. They knocked down six threes in the third quarter but allowed the Timberwolves to stick around with their turnovers. The young, athletic ball club took advantage on fastbreaks and still trailed the Rockets by ten points at the end of the third period.
In the final frame, both teams exhibited their offensive talents. Minnesota could not cut into the lead because of the precise passing Smith was delivering. He began to be the main catalyst for open three-point shots and dunks that ultimately sealed the game.
What To Take Away
- Josh Smith (16pts, 11asts, 9rebs, 3blks) served an excellent role filling in for Motiejunas’ starting position. Smith clocked 40 minutes tonight, but usually averages 25 per game. Maybe getting him more reps with Howard will continue disturbing defenses as we saw versus Minnesota. Smith distributed extremely well as a point-forward.
- It’s almost like beating a dead horse now. The Rockets must clean up their sloppy turnover habit. They persistently commit unforced errors. However, they did a much better job in the second half by only turning it over four times compared to their 13 in the first half. If the Timberwolves only lost by 10 points after 17 turnovers, imagine how the Spurs will profit during the playoffs.
- Having Howard back elevates this team more than the box score reveals. With home court advantage, the Rockets can feed off the momentum plays that Howard creates. Most of those plays are dunks but occasionally, he’ll share the ball for an open three pointer. Those plays are vital in a playoff atmosphere. Not to mention the intimidation he poses on the defensive end. His under-appreciated qualities will work wonders in the postseason.
- Terry finally caught a groove from beyond the arc, but Pablo Prigioni is still searching for his shot. With the Rockets, he’s only 18 percent from three. In 43 games with the Knicks this season, he made 37 percent of them. He has to continue to shoot and find his stroke but his time frame to do so is shrinking.
Next: How Josh Smith is evolving as a Rocket
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