Monday Playoff Takeaways: James Harden Reminds NBA How High Rockets Ceiling Goes

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistApril 24, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 23: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets dribbles the ball against Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first quarter in Game Four of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2018 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In case you'd somehow forgotten, James Harden and Chris Paul are both pretty decent at this whole basketball thing.

Though the Houston Rockets wound up wiping the floor of the Target Center with the Minnesota Timberwolves during Monday night's 119-100 victory, which extended their series advantage to 3-1, this wasn't obvious early in the proceedings. Yes, even though the lead swelled over 30 points before a meaningless fourth-quarter run by the hosts.

Hot shooting from Trevor Ariza allowed Houston to surge out to an early advantage, but the team's two superstars struggled. Paul wasn't able to keep the ball swinging around the perimeter and couldn't prevent the Houston offense from devolving into stagnant sets with little movement away from the primary action. Harden was determined to roast one defender after another in isolation...except he couldn't get shots to drop from beyond the arc or around the basket en route to an 0-of-7 opening. 

Through the first two quarters, which the Rockets won by just a single point, neither veteran looked particular special. 

When the two teams retreated to their respective locker rooms, Harden had just 12 points on 14 shots—including a 2-of-7 showing from downtown. Paul could only muster eight points and five assists while also shooting under 50 percent from the field. And then the third quarter happened. 

Cue the Harden barrage: 

This was everything you look for from the current iteration of the Rockets, as they scored 50 points in a 12-minute stretch and basically guaranteed the night's victory. They were engaged defensively, forcing tough shot after tough shot. They got contributions from a wide variety of players, spacing the floor for the bigs to operate on the interior and the guards to drive into the vacated paint. 

But above all else, the stars strutted their stuff on the biggest stage and reminded the world why this team's ceiling rises as high as any other's. 

Harden led the charge with his 22 points, shooting 7-of-10 from the field, 3-of-4 from downtown and 5-of-5 from the line. The quarter began with his dancing past Karl-Anthony Towns (who played much more aggressively Monday night) before finishing over Taj Gibson at the basket, and it only got easier from there. No one could stay in front of him when he wasn't hitting quick pull-up triples, and his touch around the hoop was immaculate. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 23: Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets goes to the basket against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game Four of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2018 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

Paul had a much more restrained 15 points, four rebounds and one assist in the quarter, but his shooting was similarly staggering: 4-of-6 from the field, 3-of-3 from beyond the rainbow and 4-of-4 at the charity stripe. He orchestrated the Houston offense flawlessly during the possessions on which Harden let him have touches. 

By the end of the night, despite their early struggles, the two combined for 61 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, nine steals, one block and only two turnovers while slashing 48.8/50.0/100.0. 

And this, in a nutshell, is why the Rockets can't be overlooked as true contenders. 

They've been inconsistent throughout the first round, and they looked eminently vulnerable after Monday's opening two quarters. Minnesota had begun proving it could force the Houston offense into stagnation while relying on a scoring stud (Jimmy Butler) to keep pace. If Towns began performing like he had throughout the regular season, maybe the Wolves had a chance to pull off the historic upset and erase their one-game deficit. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 21: James Harden #13 and Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets react during the fourth quarter in Game Three of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 21, 2018 at the Target Center in Minneapo
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

But then 12 minutes negated all of that, stifling any hopes of an underdog story by a team with far more talent than your typical No. 8 seed.

Twelve minutes showed the full potential of the celestial backcourt, which was assembled for this purpose. Twelve minutes canceled out all previous concerns, because the Golden State Warriors might be (not "are," but "might be") the only outfit capable of matching this type of uncontainable spurtability. Twelve minutes confirmed, in the face of some contradictory evidence arising from recent outings, that these Rockets deserve to be the West's top seed.

        

Checking in on Westbrook vs. Rubio

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 23: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against Ricky Rubio #3 of the Utah Jazz in Game Four of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2018 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Uta
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

"He made some shots," Russell Westbrook said after Ricky Rubio dropped a triple-double against him in Game 3, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. "Too comfortable. But I'm gonna shut that s--- off next game though. Guarantee that." 

Technically, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard was correct. Rubio didn't come close to the 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists he posted during the previous outing. In fact, he was held to 13 points, six rebounds and eight dimes on 4-of-12 shooting during the latest wrestling-match affair. 

But if you're only looking at the box score, you're missing a lot. Though the Spanish floor general might not have racked up nearly as many counting stats as Westbrook (23 points, 14 rebounds, three assists), he had the superior night during the Utah Jazz's 113-96 victory on their home court to extend their series lead to 3-1. 

Rubio didn't come out seeking points Monday night. Instead, he carefully orchestrated the Salt Lake City offense by deferring at the right times and attacking at others. He was in complete control for much of the proceedings, cooly operating within the pick-and-roll to set up his running mates, as Young noted on Twitter: 

The box score doesn't show all the hockey assists. It doesn't give mention of the tough defense he played against a variety of matchups. Nor does it indicate the momentum-swinging effect of sequences like the one Rubio had near the end of the first half, where he drained a jumper and then stepped in to take a charge against Westbrook—the explosive 1-guard's fourth personal foul of the night. 

On the flip side, this was a bad night for Westbrook. 

Five turnovers are troubling, especially because so many came while he was out of control. His penchant for disrupting the flow of the OKC offense—an oxymoronic phrase, at times—was on full display as he elevated for pull-up jumpers that clanged off the rim. He was so intent on proving himself defensively against Rubio that he got into the aforementioned foul trouble and couldn't play as aggressively, which affected his teammates in a big way:

But perhaps worst of all, Westbrook looked totally disengaged when he wasn't trying to take over. His unwillingness to cut and make the most of his athleticism left the Thunder at a significant disadvantage, which Jeff Siegel of The Step Back astutely noted: 

Yes, Westbrook scored more points than Rubio.

Nevertheless, he was the inferior presence in Game 4, and not just because his team wound up on the wrong end of a 17-point margin. That has to change if OKC wants to keep its season alive when the series heads back to the Sooner State on Wednesday. 

           

Hello, Derrick Rose

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 23:  Derrick Rose #25 of the Minnesota Timberwolves goes to the basket against the Houston Rockets in Game Four of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2018 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User
David Sherman/Getty Images

Throughout the Minnesota Timberwolves' first-round series, Derrick Rose has shown flashes of a return to form, and they're taking place with increased frequency. He's still having trouble preventing dribble penetration on the defensive end and can occasionally get caught trying to make an unnecessarily fancy finish at the basket instead of kicking the ball out for a spot-up jumper, but he's nowhere near the liability he'd been in his last few stops. 

Instead, he's served as a legitimate asset to head coach Tom Thibodeau. 

Heading into Monday night's 19-point defeat, Rose had averaged 14.0 points, 1.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists against the Houston Rockets, shooting 48.7 percent from the field, knocking down 60.0 percent of his triples and hitting his only free-throw attempt. Even more importantly, his contributions weren't just empty numbers; he seemed to be helping, even if his presence on the court coincided with a slight dip in the team's net rating

But in spite of the Game 4 loss, this was the most Rose has looked like vintage Rose in quite some time. 

The explosiveness was there as he attacked the basket in transition, and he could similarly get to the hoop out of the half-court set. Rather than commandeering possessions and hindering late-developing action like he'd done in previous outings, he was aggressive from the get-go and couldn't be kept out of the painted area:

Whether he was controlling the offense or deciding to take uncontested jumpers, his decision-making was sound for much of the night. He wound up playing 32 minutes, and that was enough for him to compile 17 points, six rebounds and four assists while going 7-of-11 from the field and making both his treys.

Oh, and though the Wolves lost in a blowout, they outscored the Rockets while the former MVP was on the hardwood. 

In other words, get ready for Thibodeau to grant Rose 48 minutes of run during Game 5. 

          

Joe Ingles Appreciation Night

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 23: Joe Ingles #2 of the Utah Jazz handles the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Four of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2018 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

If you haven't caught on, let me bring you up to speed: Joe Ingles is a game-changing player who contributes in across-the-board fashion. He's the type of contributor who doesn't need to rack up counting stats in order to make a substantial impact, but he decided to do so anyway during Utah's 113-96 win. 

Anyone who throws up 20 points, three rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block while going 6-of-12 from the field and 5-of-11 from deep deserves some love, but Ingles' worth still goes well beyond those basic numbers. That's why he checked in at No. 33 in my joint rankings of the playoffs' 50 best players with Dan Favale, and it's why he's sandwiched between Lou Williams and Marc Gasol at No. 49 overall in NBA Math's end-of-season #CrystalBasketball rankings

First and foremost comes his gravitational pull. You simply can't leave Ingles alone on the perimeter (especially in the corners), or else he'll make you pay. The Thunder know this and (sometimes) act accordingly, which opens up easier driving lanes for Donovan Mitchell and Rubio, who feasts on the ensuing kick-out options. 

But that part of his game is obvious. 

Less clear—before this nationally televised series, at least—has been Ingles' prowess as a secondary distributor who's comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll. You can see that ball-handling and passing acumen in the early play above, but head coach Quin Snyder leaned on this rather frequently during the middle portion of the game, intentionally probing to either draw another foul on Westbrook or force an advantageous switch. 

Even beyond that, Ingles can change an outcome with his defensive ability. He has quick feet and quicker hands, allowing him to stay in front of difficult wing assignments such as Paul George—whom he frustrated into misses and a technical foul with his peskiness and trash-talking habits. 

Don't make the mistake of thinking Ingles is just some role player for the Jazz. He's so much more than that, and he's not just a spot-up sniper, either. 

       

Quick Injury Concern in Houston

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 21: PJ Tucker #4 of the Houston Rockets drives to the basket against Taj Gibson #67 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first quarter in Game Three of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 21, 2018 at the Target Center i
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

After Jeff Teague fell on him in a battle for a loose ball early in the second quarter, PJ Tucker went back to the locker room with an injured left knee. The Rockets are already operating without Luc Mbah a Moute, who suffered a dislocated right shoulder near the end of the regular season and isn't expected to play for a while longer. 

Fortunately, Tucker ended up being fine. He was back on the bench before halftime and re-entered the fray at the start of the third quarter. But his brief absence, which coincided with an offensive spurt by the Timberwolves, underscored the precariousness of Houston's defensive rotation.

This team, no matter how explosive it may be during some quarters, is not invulnerable.

Obviously, Houston's injury situation could be worse (see: Celtics, Boston). But it could still be problematic, considering a more serious blow to Tucker would've created two hindered forwards, both of whom stand among the team's premier defenders and have been tasked with stopping quite a few opposing standouts throughout the 2017-18 campaign.

They've combined to play 53.4 minutes per game, and any sort of extended absence from Tucker would place more of a burden on the shoulders of Gerald Green and Trevor Ariza, potentially wearing them out for the later portions of a deep playoff run. Joe Johnson might even get called upon for high-leverage minutes, which is a bit troubling at this stage of the veteran's career.

Still, the changing rotation might not be as worrisome as the potential defensive woes. 

Despite Houston's status as an offensive juggernaut boasting two leading talents in Harden and Paul, its astronomical levels of success this year are also predicated upon its point-preventing prowess. Only five teams submitted superior defensive ratings throughout the regular season. 

But per PBPStats.com, the Rockets allowed 107.3 points per 100 possessions with neither Mbah a Moute nor Tucker on the floor—a situation that occurred for 1,010 minutes over the first 82 games. That defensive rating would fall well behind the team's overall mark, settling between those of the No. 17 Milwaukee Bucks and No. 18 Dallas Mavericks. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 21: James Harden #13 and PJ Tucker #4 of the Houston Rockets defend against Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first quarter in Game Three of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 21, 2018 at the
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Losing one malleable defender is tough. Losing two can be devastating, even if Houston still has the requisite firepower to outscore virtually any opponent when basketball contests morph into shootouts. 

Fortunately, Tucker didn't suffer any serious malady. But keep an eye on him. This defense is already more vulnerable without Mbah a Moute, and it's one ankle tweak away from further issues that would make a Minnesota comeback possible—or, more likely, a different opponent all the more dangerous. 

          

Don't Forget the Missing Link in OKC

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- DECEMBER 25: Andre Roberson #21 of the Oklahoma City Thunder defends during the game against the Houston Rockets on December 25, 2017 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and a
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder have struggled to keep up with the Utah Jazz throughout this first-round series, but let's not forget they're playing without their fourth-best player. That's not Russell Westbrook, Paul George or Steven Adams. Carmelo Anthony is much further down the pecking order these days.

Instead, it's the man who single-handedly sparks an 11.2-point swing in defensive rating when he's on the floor, dropping OKC's stopping power all the way to a staggering 96.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Yep, that would be Andre Roberson. Please don't overlook just how good he is, or how impactful he might've been during this series if he hadn't gone down with a season-ending rupture of his left patellar tendon back in January.

    

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and are current heading into games April 23.

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