Missing Pekovic (ankle bursitis) and K-Mart (fractured thumb), the Wolves at least could count on Kevin Love's presence on the floor; In fact, it was the only thing they could count on as he went for a 31 point, 10 rebound double-double in the losing effort.
No Rockets starter scored less than 14 points in a very balanced offensive performance. Although Harden had a poor overall shooting night from the floor (4 for 14) and a prototypical Harden defensive outing, he also produced a prototypical James Harden line of 19 points (8 free throws made), 5 rebounds, and 5 assists.
Dwight dominated the paint with a team leading 15 rebounds to go with 18 points and Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin took care of the transition game when Harden was lobbing three pointers. Everyone had their role, and everyone played it well. Lin struggled the most in terms of scoring, but his 7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio was more than enough compensation given how the rest of the team was playing.
Before getting into the game walkthrough I did want to add this wrinkle: Oddly, this was Chase Budinger's first game against the team that drafted him, having been injured in all previous matchups. He not only got to start defending the guy who took his job as a rookie (Chandler) but also the first game he played against the draft pick that came of his trade from Houston (Terrence Jones). The only thing that would bring game this more full circle is for Terrence Jones to stomp on Kevin Love's face like he was Luis Scola (or a homeless dude, whichever floats your boat).
The first quarter started with a barrage of assists from Chandler Parsons (5), resulting in quick spikes in scoring for Terrence Jones near the hoop and Patrick Beverley from beyond the arc. Houston hit 9 of their first 13 shots, including a couple of long range bombs from Harden, leading to a 10+ point lead to kick things off. The Timberwolves had a bit of a turnover issue late in the quarter and were only kept in the game by an impressive offensive performance by Love who scored over half of Minnesota's points in the first.
Love scored 17 points (shooting all 8 of Minnesota's free throws) on 7 field goal attempts, shooting 57%. The rest of his team shot an abysmal 26.6% from the field to start the contest.
The T'Wolves were able to string together a few plays late to draw the opening quarter to a close at 34-28.
In the second, Omer Asik opened up the offense with an emphatic dunk off an offensive board. Over the first 3 minutes, this was the Rockets only score and with the turnovers starting to rack up, the Timberwolves began to push the score closer to even. Houston was ardently feeding Dwight Howard who was guarded by Turiaf and Dieng all night long.
Alexey Shved carried the Wolves' second unit, hitting long distance shots and throwing down a pretty impressive alley-oop dunk to energize the crowd and keep the lead from getting out of hand.
Every time the Wolves appeared to be making a run to take the lead, however, the Rockets were able to either create space for layups in the half-court or get out in transition for easy buckets. Still, we know all too well that a Rick Adelman coached team never gives up easy.
Donatas had a pretty impressive chase down of a long pass in transition that he converted to a three point play. Sometimes you forget how fast a big guy like him can be. That, along with a couple of free throws by Casspi and a pretty looking step-back three pointer in transition at the halftime buzzer from Harden led Houston into the half with a 67-58 lead.
Kevin Love scored a first half career high 23 points on just 12 field goal attempts. Love and Shved combined for nearly 60% of Minnesota's offense, scoring 34 points on 10-19 shooting (52%). The rest of the team? Well, 9 of 25 shooting (36%) with no single player scoring more than 7 points.
Houston's offense was as balanced as it was potent in the first half. Nearly 70 first half points with 4 of 5 starters scoring in double figures.
The second half opened up with a quick run by Minnesota, continuing the yo-yoing trend of the first half. Harden came out much more aggressively in the second half, driving to the basket and forcing the issue instead of camping out from beyond the arc which was able to drive the lead back to a more comfortable margin in double digits.
Francisco and Beverley rained in back-to-back three pointers, extending the lead to the largest of the night to that point at 15.
The Wolves were not able to score for 5 straight minutes until Budinger broke the curse. Kevin Love cooled off significantly, leaving the Minnesota offense very much wanting offensively until late in the quarter when he began to warm up again. They were really missing a Kevin Martin type presence on the floor tonight that could play well off of Love by cutting and shoot from distance.
At the end of the third, the Wolves were clawing their way back into the game, whittling the lead down to just four following a 12-1 run. Houston scored just three points in the final 8 minutes of the quarter. Outside of the initial push by the Rockets, Minnesota fought their way back into it going into the final period.
The fourth quarter started with a Rockets turnover off of an illegal screen, followed by an offensive foul by Howard on the block. The first points of the final quarter were scored by Parsons in transition from a heady Lin pass off a turnover.
That same play essentially happened twice: Beverley forced another turnover on Shved, Lin gets the ball on the break and dishes the ball to Parsons for the finish. The Wolves had still not scored a point over 3 minutes into the quarter. Barea hit the Wolves first shot, but it was clearly after the shot clock expired and was rescinded shortly after. At that point, the lead was 15 and the Wolves still had zero field goals made in the 4th with just under six minutes remaining.
Corey Brewer scored the Wolves first points shortly after. Defensively, however, Minnesota was falling apart. They were allowing easy shots right near the rim, if not outright dunks which prevented their late breaking 4th quarter offense from meaning much.
Houston ran away with this one late, gaining their largest lead of the night (17) with less than 2 minutes remaining and that was all she wrote.
Although this was very much a game of runs on both sides, the Rockets seemed in control from the very beginning. Even when the score was close, it felt like the Rockets were leading by about 5 more points than they had at most points during the game. Minnesota (read: Kevin Love) just could not sustain their offense for long enough to capitalize on the stretches where they were stopping Houston on the other end of the floor.
Houston really seems to be hitting its stride now heading into the all-star break where they will get a much appreciated break from action. We'll see if they can head into the break with a long winning streak or a short losing streak on Wednesday against the Wizards.
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