How can the Timberwolves slow down James Harden?
MINNEAPOLIS — There's one reason the Rockets are up 1-0 on Minnesota in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs: James Harden.
Chris Paul turned in one of his worst performances in recent memory and the Rockets shooters not named Harden went 3 for 25 on 3-pointers in Game 1, yet the Rockets emerged victorious thanks to Harden's 44 points and eight assists.
The soon-to-be 2017-18 NBA Most Valuable Player delivered.
"This is when you have to pull it out, and that's when I want to see it," Wolves guard Derrick Rose said Sunday, April 15. "I want to see it all, and tonight, he showed everything that he's got, and now it's time to go back to the game book and look at the film and just go from there and try to get better every game."
Harden averaged 27 points and 10 assists in four regular-season meetings against Minnesota, but he brought his game to a new level Sunday. If the MVP continues to perform at that level throughout the series, the Wolves' chances of winning the series go from slim to none.
"I feel like I played good defense," Andrew Wiggins said. "I feel like everyone did, really. He made tough shots. That's why he is who he is."
That's the scary part for Minnesota. Even coach Tom Thibodeau thought there were several plays the Wolves defended Harden well and he made shots anyway.
The Wolves primarily threw Wiggins, Rose and Jimmy Butler at Harden on Sunday. Harden went 5 for 8 with Butler as the primary defender, 5 for 11 with Wiggins on him and 4 for 6 when Rose was on his hip — it really didn't matter who Minnesota put on him. When Harden is hitting his patented step-back 3-pointer, he is nearly impossible to defend. That begs the question: Is there anything more the Wolves can do? Wiggins thought he defended well. Rose, who noted his job is to "irritate" Harden and "get under his skin," said he was "doing the best I can."
Butler didn't feel that way about his defensive performance, Known as one of the game's true lock-down defenders, Butler seemed to take some personal offense to Harden's offensive onslaught.
"It's got to be a lot better. I've got to do my job more effectively on the defensive end," Butler said. "What do you want? Free throw, 3-pointer, layup? He got whatever he wanted in that game, and I've got to do better at taking it away."
But Butler also acknowledged that it comes down to more than just him. Thibodeau said defending a player of Harden's caliber requires "your whole team."
"It's everybody out there; everybody has to be in the correct position," Butler said. "Challenge shots, contest him at the rim."
A lot of that falls on the shoulders of Karl-Anthony Towns. The Wolves' pick-and-roll defense Sunday consisted of Towns dropping back and defending the paint. Yet when Harden did knife his way into the paint, Towns' defense often left something to be desired.
And on the rare occasions when Harden did miss at the rim, Clint Capela was almost always there for the easy put back with little contest from Timberwolves crashing the glass.
'More than anything, if there is a miss, we've got to get the rebound and take off the other way," Butler said. "We didn't do any of that (Monday), but we've got to be better on Wednesday."
Wiggins said the Wolves have to "just make it harder" for Harden. When asked how they can do that, he pointed to their preparation.
"We've got a couple of days to prepare, practice," Wiggins said, "come up with a game plan that can try to slow him down."