At first blush the Minnesota Timberwolves got what they wanted in Game 1 on Sunday, limiting the Houston Rockets to a substandard shooting performance from the perimeter after being overrun by a hail of 3-pointers while being dismantled in all four regular-season meetings.
But what went wrong proved costly for Minnesota. Despite the sound strategy of running multiple bodies in the direction of Rockets All-Star guard James Harden, the Timberwolves' defense resembled a sieve as Harden produced 44 points and eight assists in a 104-101 victory.
If the Timberwolves can again harass Houston into 10-for-37 shooting from behind the arc on Wednesday at Toyota Center in Game 2 of this Western Conference first-round playoff series, they will have met one of their primary objectives. However, preventing Harden from torching their defense is a game plan that must be executed in concert with blanketing the 3-point line.
"It's got to be a lot better," said Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler, who drew the primary assignment on Harden. "I've got to do my job more effectively. What do you want: a free throw, a 3-pointer, a layup? He got whatever he wanted in that game and I've got to be better at taking it away.
"He's a (heck) of a player; everybody knows that. But you don't just guard him with one guy, it's everybody out there. Everybody has to be in the correct position to challenge shots, contest him at the rim. If there is a miss we've got to get the rebound and take off the other way. But we didn't do any of that. We've got to be better on Wednesday."
Another goal for Minnesota is to unlock a method to better utilize the supreme talents of All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns on offense. Towns was second on the team in scoring during the regular season, averaging 21.3 points while attempting 14.3 shots per game. In the series opener, he tallied eight points on nine shots and was unable to take advantage of the situation when he occasionally worked against smaller defenders in the Rockets' switch-oriented defense.
The Timberwolves nearly overcame Towns' lack of production by relying on a multitude of contributors. Five players scored in double figures led by Andrew Wiggins' 18 points and the combined 28 points from the starting backcourt of Jeff Teague and Butler. Reserves Jamal Crawford and Derrick Rose totaled 31 points on 11-of-25 shooting to provide needed balance.
"The important thing is it's not a one-on-one game, and so everyone has to understand that," Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. "If they're going to double team that means it's going to be easy for other people and if they're going to switch we have to make the right reads. If we're making the right play the game will tell you who's going to get the shots. And as long as we take good shots then I think we're going to score."
Per usual, the Rockets shook off their poor shooting as an anomaly and relished their ability to thrive in the paint instead. Houston outpaced the bigger Timberwolves 54-44 on paint points with Harden feasting both on driving layups and pinpoint passes to center Clint Capela, who finished 10 of 15 for 24 points. Harden produced six layups or dunks and assisted on six more, fueling an offense often described as 3-point depended yet again proved versatile and efficient.
"I think every single night we take what the defense gives us," Harden said. "Unfortunately, we didn't knock down the 3-ball -- Game 2 that will be different -- but just getting to the basket, finishing, not only myself but Chris (Paul), Clint, the entire team. We're not going to try to force anything. We're going to take what they give us and have confidence in our shot. That's all we've been doing and that's the reason why we're here."