On Monday, April 23, we were treated to pivotal Western Conference Game 4s out of Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. James Harden and the Rockets turned the Wolves to ash, while Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz sent OKC spiraling. Houston and Utah now each possess a commanding 3-1 lead–who can advance first?
Minneapolis, You Have a Problem
After gifting Minneapolis its first NBA playoff game and NBA playoff win since 2004 on Saturday, the Timberwolves looked prepared to challenge the Rockets for an even series two nights later. At halftime on Monday, the Wolves trailed 50-49 behind 11 points from Derrick Rose (of all people) and 10 from Jimmy Butler. On the other side, James Harden had just 12 at the time, which was equally a partial achievement–he started the game shooting 0-for-7–and an omen. Harden, who found his rhythm midway through the second quarter, never looked back.
The third quarter turned the Target Center into a makeshift slaughterhouse. In just 12 minutes, the Houston Rockets doubled their point total. Harden contributed a franchise-record 22, Chris Paul added 15, and we had, finally, the fullest picture of just how threatening this backcourt can be on a nightly basis this postseason. Through the first three games of the series, it felt like Harden and Paul were designating among themselves which of the two would be great each game: in Game 1, Harden netted 44, while Paul scored just 14; when Harden shot 2-for-18 in Game 2, Paul shot 10-for-18. (Game 3 saw their most even outputs to that point, but neither was great enough. The Rockets lost.) Taking advantage of the defensively lackadaisical and offensively depleted Wolves in the third quarter on Monday, Paul and Harden peaked together. The Rockets had a 31-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, which we may as well have skipped.
At the end of the day, this is a 1-8 first-round matchup, and while the Wolves have had moments of promise, they are simply unprepared for a deep playoff run. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins aren’t, developmentally, where we expected them to be. Butler is dealing with at least three injuries, and frankly shouldn’t even be playing. Jeff Teague is being outplayed by Rose. Tom Thibodeau, long lauded a defense-first head coach, is helming a ship capsizing into its defensive weaknesses. The Timberwolves tantalized us early this season, but recycling bad habits won’t push them past a Rockets team happy to capitalize on their glaring shortcomings.
As the teams head back to Houston for a close-out game, both need to examine their performances through the up-and-down series. If the Wolves want to steal a road win and stay alive, they should consider starting Rose. They should transfer some responsibility from the banged-up Butler to Wiggins, who said after Game 3, “I feel like I play good under pressure.” They should construct the offense around Towns, who’s made his living in the paint over the past two contests. They should also pray Towns doesn’t pick up two fouls in the first three minutes of the game like he did Monday. If the threes aren’t falling, the Wolves must attack the basket and let Rose, Butler, and Towns go to work. If the Wolves continue to stagnate offensively and concede defensively, they can call April 26 their first day of summer. (In any case, Minnesota has a lot to look forward to come May as Maya Moore and the Lynx look to defend their WNBA title.)
Meanwhile, if the Rockets want to cap off a five-game series with a statement victory, Harden can’t be passive. Paul, Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker, and Trevor Ariza need to stay defensively active on one end and put the ball in the basket on the other. Capela will be key: setting good screens for Harden and Paul, getting to his own open spots, keeping up with Towns one-on-one, shot-blocking, rim-running, and rebounding have been his responsibilities throughout, and he’s yet to let the Rockets down. As long as Harden and Paul produce efficiently, team defense is attentive, and Capela does his job, the Rockets should glide to victory.
Houston’s 50-point quarter in the playoffs–remember, a time when basketball is supposed to slow down–is the second-best output of its nature in history. And honestly? Considering the Rockets’ style of play, it’d be hard to be surprised if they do it again sometime between this Wednesday and late June.
The Slow, Inevitable Death of OKC
Since October, we’ve heard it over and over again: “give them time”. “Give them 30 games” became “give them until the All-Star break”, which in turn became “well, they’re built for the Playoffs”. Would someone like to tell the Oklahoma City Thunder that the Playoffs are, uh, here?
If you’ve watched the Thunder all season and you also happen to be a realist, you shouldn’t be surprised that they’re in a 3-1 hole against the lower-seeded Utah Jazz. OKC continues to underperform relative to expectations that held Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony to a standard that remains mysterious but was ultimately unattainable. The Jazz, however, have no identifiable ceiling.
After Utah took a 2-1 series lead on Saturday behind Ricky Rubio’s triple-double and overall outstanding play, Westbrook (the Triple-Double Prince, mind you) issued a challenge less to Rubio and more to himself: “I’ma shut that sh*t off next game … guarantee that.” True to his word, he kind of did. But in the process of hounding Rubio full-court and limiting him to 4-for-12 shooting, Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime. While he was engaged and appropriately aggressive in the first quarter, Russ’s foul trouble negatively impacted his performance through the final three. George and Anthony didn’t necessarily pick up the slack. Seven technicals and one Mitt Romney later, OKC’s bare bones told the story.
Anthony shot 5-for-18 and George 9-for-21. Melo missed all six of his attempts beyond the arc, while Playoff P went 2-for-9. Poor shooting is nothing new for OKC’s superstars; the only consistency they can boast is a stale offense. Overall though, OKC shot 5-for-26 from three-point range, far and away their worst team three-point performance of the season. The Thunder bench managed just 18 points. The team clocked 10 total assists, while Utah had 21. Russ, the league leader in assists, dished just three. He shot 7-for-18, grabbed 14 rebounds, and turned the ball over five times.
While OKC goes up in flames, Utah is thriving. Donovan Mitchell is effortlessly breaking rookie records set more than three decades ago by Jordan and Malone. Rudy Gobert is notching double-doubles with ease while scaring OKC out of the paint. Rubio continues to put together complete games predicated on facilitating. Off the bench, Royce O’Neale is an offensive spark while Jae Crowder is an enforcer. Joe Ingles is living large as the Thunder continue to leave him free as a bird in three-point territory. Postgame, the always affable Mitchell reiterated, “we always say the strength of our team is our team.” The opposite could be said of the Thunder.
Do the Thunder have any idea of what’s going on? Do they have a game plan? Why are they leaving Joe Ingles wide open? Why aren’t they doubling Donovan Mitchell? Why won’t they just make Ricky Rubio shoot and live with the result? Why won’t they move the ball? Where is Steven Adams? Do they understand why they’re losing? Why is Joe Ingles wide open?
Westbrook, George, and Anthony’s postgame media availabilities have had a whole lot to do with making and missing shots and little to do with anything else. If OKC continues to simply hope to make shots, we can pretty much call this a wrap. They’re fighting the league’s best defense with a hideous offense. They’re countering a team-oriented offense with their own distracted, over-aggressive defense. The Thunder are being outsmarted and outplayed by a composed, patient, focused underdog. Even if OKC gets their sh*t together and emerges the winner of an extended seven-game series, it would be hard to call them the true victors. Somewhere in Los Angeles, Magic Johnson is cackling.