James Harden Struggles, but Rockets Take 2-0 Series Lead vs. Timberwolves

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistApril 19, 2018

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket over Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns during the first half in Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Wednesday, April 18, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

After escaping Game 1 against the Minnesota Timberwolves with a narrow three-point win, the Houston Rockets rolled in Wednesday's Game 2 at Toyota Center and seized control of their first-round playoff series with a 102-82 victory.

James Harden was brilliant in Game 1 with 44 points, but Houston relied on Chris Paul and a balanced attack in its second win.

Four Houston players scored in double figures, including Paul, who spearheaded the blowout effort with 27 points, eight assists and three steals. Harden was another one of those players, totaling 12 points, but he was an abysmal 2-of-18 from the field and 1-of-10 from deep. He was far from the reason his team was victorious, even with seven assists.

Houston is so dangerous because it has two future Hall of Fame-caliber players in the backcourt, meaning it can afford a lackluster performance from one and still rely on the other to get it through a contest.

That is exactly what has happened in this series against the eighth-seeded Timberwolves, as Harden made up for Paul's 5-of-14 shooting and six turnovers in Game 1 and Paul compensated for Harden's showing in Game 2.

It helps that the Rockets are playing a Minnesota team that was a mere 22nd in the league in defensive rating this season, per NBA.com, and doesn't have much of an answer on that side of the ball outside of three-time All-Defensive selection Jimmy Butler.

With Butler shadowing Harden for stretches, Paul darted into the lane and either finished for himself or forced defenders to collapse before he found perimeter shooters. The nine-time All-Star dazzled the crowd with a number of head-turning floaters and layups at the rim, many of which came when Minnesota's big men were left helplessly flailing at his ball-handling and lightning-quick first step.

With the Timberwolves left chasing Paul, Gerald Green was left open a number of times and delivered with 21 points on 5-of-12 shooting from downtown. Trevor Ariza benefited as well with 15 points and three triples, and Clint Capela dominated down low with eight points and 16 boards.

The fact Houston handled Minnesota with relative ease even with the potential league MVP struggling sends a message to the rest of the NBA in these playoffs. This team can win in the postseason without Harden dominating, and the ceiling is the Larry O'Brien Trophy when he does play well.

Capela was also key on the defensive side and a primary reason Karl-Anthony Towns never established a rhythm.

The Timberwolves big man is typically a matchup problem because of his ability to score inside or stretch his arsenal to three-point range, but he finished Wednesday's contest with a mere five points on 2-of-9 shooting as Capela and others challenged his looks in the frontcourt.

Despite the blowout, it appeared as if Minnesota was going to challenge the Rockets again in Game 2 after it built an early-nine point lead with Butler and Andrew Wiggins attacking off the bounce. However, things fell apart for the visitors when Houston enjoyed a 37-17 advantage in the second quarter alone, and they never recovered.

Minnesota never had a chance with its All-Star big man struggling, but Wiggins (13 points and eight boards) and Butler (11 points) didn't light up the scoreboard either, even with a quick start.

The series now shifts to Minnesota for Saturday's Game 3, and the Timberwolves will have two home games to potentially pull even in this series. If they don't, Houston will be awaiting the winner of the series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in the near future.

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