James Harden Leads, Houston Rockets Follow

Kevin McHale on James Harden and his performance in leading the Houston Rockets to their fifth straight win: He’s just so hard to defend. He’s got the side-step, Euro-step, driving into you. He’s so doggone strong. He’s really got strong hands. He mauls the ball through your armpit and finds a way to finish.

And that was pretty much it. Not too much of the number one offense in the NBA, the one that averages 105.3 points per game and scored 120 points on Christmas against the best defense in the NBA, showed up at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Houston shot only 40.7% from the field, and Jeremy Lin, after a nice streak, was terrible from the field with 8 points, only one assist while shooting 3-9. Carlos Delfino and Toney Douglas combined for 6-22 off the bench.

A lot of it has to do with the Timberwolves defense, which has turned into one of the best in the NBA when Andrei Kirilneko on the floor. The offense looks ugly for the Timberwolves, and until Ricky Rubio feels like his old self again, it’s going to continue that way. Luke Ridnour isn’t a real point guard, and neither is Alexey Shved, or at least not at the moment.

So what did carry the Houston Rockets to their 87-84 win? The Timberwolves had a lead, as usual, in the beginning of the fourth. For the sixth time this season, they managed to drop it, losing their fourth game out of five. Omer Asik deserves a lot of credit for battling and matching up well against one of the toughest front lines to rebound against. The Turkish center finished with 9 points and 17 rebounds, improving to an average of 11.8 per game. If it wasn’t for him, the Timberwolves’ advantage on the boards would be much more than 50-47.

The toughness from the back court was all Harden. There was no pretty passing plays and a lot of movement in an offense that is usually to quick to handle when it’s on its best behavior. The plan was simply giving the ball to Harden, and let him figure out what to do. In the fourth quarter, James Harden completely took over. He scored 17 of his 30 points in the final period, most of them by simply creating space and driving to the basket on helpless guards, usually Rubio or Shved. The Timberwolves didn’t make any adjustments or move a bigger man like Kirilenko on him, and simply couldn’t get the stops the needed when it mattered.

The Rockets for the first time in years have a go to guy who can win games. During the best years of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, it wasn’t enough for more than a postseason spot. This time, without the same expectations but with a growing realization that Harden is every bit the superstar he thought he was coming off the bench for Oklahoma City Thunder, it looks like they have the right pieces around their star player for success that should last a very long time.

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