The Minnesota Timberwolves are heading into the All-Star break with momentum after a 121-111 victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday at the Target Center.
Minnesota has won two in a row following a four-game losing streak, while Houston enters the break 4-2 in its last six contests.
James Harden extended his streak of scoring 30 or more points to 31 games with 42 points, six assists and five rebounds, while Chris Paul added 16 points, eight dimes and five rebounds in support. They were the only Rockets to score more than 13 in the loss, which was not enough to keep pace with the Timberwolves.
Karl-Anthony Towns spearheaded the balanced effort for Minnesota with 25 points, nine boards and five assists. He was one of seven players for the home team to score in double figures, including Jeff Teague (27 points and 12 assists) and Dario Saric (15 points and eight rebounds).
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Sometimes the result of the game takes a backseat to an individual's storyline during the course of a long season, and that is exactly what happened in Wednesday's matchup as Harden extended his streak of scoring at least 30 points and tied Wilt Chamberlain for the second-highest mark in league history.
It has been a display of individual brilliance and is the type of accomplishment that could be mentioned at a future Hall of Fame induction speech.
He is adding to a resume that already includes a league MVP, five All-NBA selections, a scoring title, an assist title and seven All-Star nods, but he is still missing a championship. The only way he can change that is with more support from the role players come playoff time.
While a title is a daunting task for every team in the league with the Golden State Warriors juggernaut standing in the way, Houston can point to last year's Western Conference Finals, when it was up 3-2 before Paul suffered a hamstring injury, as reason for optimism. Still, Harden going one-on-five against a group of All-Star-caliber players isn't going to cut it.
It's not as if this offensive approach is failing, though. In fact, the Rockets rank second in the league in offensive rating behind only those Warriors, per NBA.com, which is a testament to the reigning MVP's ability to create his shot in a number of ways with lethal step-back threes, an effective first step and efficiency on the free-throw line.
However, teams can make adjustments during the course of a seven-game series that are not as readily available in the regular season.
Opponents can take a more physical approach with Harden and target him on the defensive side to sap some of his energy. While he can get away with defensive lapses in the regular season with opponents changing on a nightly basis, every possession is magnified in the playoffs and tendencies are quickly learned and exploited.
If a team, such as the Warriors, consistently works him in pick-and-rolls with players like Stephen Curry and makes him constantly exert maximum effort on defense, it becomes all the less likely he will be able to carry the offense over the course of entire games as possessions devolve into four players standing around watching him in isolation mode.
That is where outside shooters, such as Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker and Gerald Green, will need to take advantage of openings when defenders collapse on No. 13.
Paul is also capable of hitting from deep when that happens, although he is averaging what would be a career-low 15.6 points a night this season on what would be a career-worst 42.3 percent shooting clip from the field. Paul playing like the nine-time All-Star version of himself instead of the one that has struggled at times this season is Houston's best hope of creating shots away from Harden.
The eventual return of Clint Capela from thumb surgery will also help because he can work in pick-and-rolls and catch lobs from Harden when double-teams come.
While Harden is further cementing his status as one of the best players in a generation with this recent streak, the only chance the Rockets have at advancing deep in the Western Conference playoffs and perhaps challenging the Warriors is with more production across the lineup.
The Rockets will travel to meet the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 21, while the Timberwolves are at the New York Knicks on Feb. 22.