The Houston Rockets lost a commanding grip on their first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves thanks to Saturday's 121-105 loss, and head coach Mike D'Antoni and guard James Harden pointed to a lack of rhythm after being on cruise control to end the season.
"I'd say [the past] couple months we haven't played really well," D'Antoni said after Minnesota cut the series lead to 2-1, per Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com. "That's why I was worried the whole time about resting guys, doing this, getting out of rhythm. [People say], 'It doesn't really mean a whole lot.' Ehhhh, it does."
MacMahon noted the Rockets rested their primary players in the regular-season finale after clinching the top-overall playoff seed with seven games left on the schedule.
"It's been a long time," Harden said regarding Houston's lack of rhythm, per MacMahon. "It's been a long time, but tomorrow is the perfect opportunity for it."
The Rockets were second in the league in offensive efficiency during the regular season at 112.2, per NBA.com. That has dropped to 106.0 in the small sample size of the playoffs, which ranks just ninth of the 16 teams that qualified for postseason play.
The presence of two superstars in the backcourt aided them in the first two games in Houston, as Harden carried the load in Game 1 while Chris Paul struggled before the two switched roles in Game 2.
Harden posted 44 points in Game 1 but was just 2-of-18 from the field and 1-of-10 from deep in Game 2, while Paul was 5-of-14 from the field with six turnovers in Game 1 but bounced back with 27 points and one turnover in Game 2.
Even though the offense hasn't clicked, Harden emphasized defense as a way to balance things out moving forward, especially after the Timberwolves drilled 15 of 27 shots from deep in Game 3.
"It's pretty simple: Play hard the entire game," Harden said, per MacMahon. "Shots are going to be made, shots are going to be missed, but I think defensively as long as our focus level is there every possession, it doesn't matter about the offense. Defensively, we'll be good enough."
The silver lining for the Rockets is that they still have home-court advantage against Minnesota even if they do lose Game 4 in Minnesota on Monday. Still, they have bigger aspirations beyond a first-round win after finishing with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and will need to find a rhythm in potential later-round matchups against the likes of the Golden State Warriors.