The Houston Rockets received a poor shooting performance from their offensive leader and were without key rotation pieces Thursday. But they had little trouble dispatching the Minnesota Timberwolves in a 116-98 victory at the Toyota Center.
James Harden, who was previously out with a hamstring injury, went just 3-of-15 from the field in his first game since Dec. 31. However, Eric Gordon (30 points), Chris Paul (19 points, nine assists, six rebounds and three steals) and Clint Capela (20 points and five rebounds) picked up the slack in the first of four matchups this season between the Western Conference rivals.
Minnesota is the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference and will need to beat teams like the second-seeded Rockets come playoff time. But they didn't have enough firepower Thursday despite solid performances from Jimmy Butler (23 points) and Karl-Anthony Towns (22 points and 16 rebounds).
The result is concerning for the Timberwolves, considering Harden figures to be fresher come the postseason.
The rust was apparent in his shooting, and Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle noted he was on a minutes restriction. He impacted the game in other areas with seven assists, two steals and two blocks, though, making up for the shooting struggles on his way to 10 points.
It was apparent from the start the Rockets would need other offensive sources when Harden missed all four of his shots in the first quarter and had just four points at halftime.
Enter Gordon, who caught fire from three-point range in the early going and never looked back. It wasn't just his shooting that helped make up for Harden's poor field-goal percentage. His role as spark off the bench also set the tone, as Alykhan Bijani of ESPN 97.5 Houston pointed out:
Alykhan Bijani @Rockets_Insider
The Rockets bench is outscoring the Timberwolves 37-17. As the Rockets get healthy, the shift of Eric Gordon to the second unit will provide the spark for the Rockets when Harden gets a rest. The last time the Rockets scored 37+ bench points was on the 3rd against the Magic.2018-1-19 04:13:05
No shot stood out more than his half-court launch to give the Rockets a 19-point lead after three:
Houston Rockets @HoustonRockets
RT this tweet if you're as accurate as @TheofficialEG10! 🎯 https://t.co/SQc9FXhBDw2018-1-19 04:12:37
It wasn't just the Gordon show, though, as Paul stepped into the primary facilitator role and consistently found his running mate for open looks. He also connected on four threes, which forced the Timberwolves to press on his perimeter game and in turn opened driving lanes and drew interior defenders toward him.
That led to open looks across the board as Houston finished with 17 triples.
While the Timberwolves struggled defensively, Towns and Butler did what they could to keep their team in the game.
Towns is known for his offense and used his strength in the post to bully his way to the rim at times, but he also unleashed multiple head-turning defensive plays. He swatted Harden at the rim to spur a fast break and danced with Paul in a one-on-one situation, forcing a contested miss from the outside:
The @Timberwolves turn defense into offense! #AllEyesNorth https://t.co/wXSmPf6kGX2018-1-19 03:09:41
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
KAT locked up CP3 😯🔒 https://t.co/OYks8Ijyl92018-1-19 03:36:25
Butler demonstrated his two-way abilities by guarding both Paul and Harden for stretches then slashing to the lane on offense instead of settling for perimeter jumpers. He attempted just one three-pointer and emphasized creating easier looks inside, which helped Minnesota close to within single digits in the fourth quarter.
Even with spurts in the fourth, the Timberwolves' inability to take advantage of Houston's shortened rotation as the home team seized firm control in the third proved to be the difference.
Minnesota will look to turn things around Saturday against the Toronto Raptors, while the Rockets will set their sights on the top-seeded Golden State Warriors in a head-to-head matchup on the same day.