Three Things to Know: Portland defends Houston well, James Harden goes off anyway

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Portland defends Houston well, it just doesn’t matter with James Harden, Chris Paul some nights. This game exemplifies why Houston is a legitimate threat to Golden State come the playoffs — the Portland Trail Blazers defended the Rockets well, and it just didn’t matter. Houston still put up 115 points on only 90 possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass, NBA.com estimated 92 possessions), and the Rockets won 115-111. The Rockets can score with anybody — including the Warriors — and that is going to win them playoff games.

Portland did a good job defending the rim Tuesday night — Houston was just 17-of-32 there, 53 percent. Houston took 36 threes (six below their season average), but again Portland did a decent job contesting — the Blazers didn’t let the Rockets get drive-and-kick threes where shooters always got to set their feet, 17 of those 36 threes (47.2 percent) were off-the-dribble with the ball handler shooting (Harden or Paul) but the Rockets hit 10 of those anyway.

At the heart of it all, James Harden was just unstoppable again, scoring 42 points, dishing out 7 assists, and looking every bit the MVP.

On offense, Portland tried to punish the small-ball game of Houston with 19 post ups, but it was undone by an off shooting night from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who were a combined 9-of-32 on the night. The Trail Blazers tried to attack mismatches created because the Rockets switch everything on defense (and have all season), but all that switching has Houston’s help defense working on a tight string and Houston got the stops they needed.

If there was any doubt lingering doubts (and there shouldn’t have been), the Rockets looked legit  — they went into a hostile road environment, made life difficult defensively on two stars, and got the W. Doing it against a (probably) healthy Golden State squad is a different challenge, but Houston is as ready as anyone.

As for Portland, San Antonio (currently) or anyone else who lands in the six seed and gets the Trail Blazers in the first round can watch the tape of this game and know they are in trouble — Portland is defending, and with that they can beat any team they face in the first round.

2) After a day of troubling news about Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris lifts Celtics’ spirit with game-winner. Who needs Kyrie Irving?

Okay, the Celtics do. And he may be out a while now, news came down on Tuesday that Irving’s sore knee is not progressing as hoped, so he going to get a second opinion on what is up with it. It’s not what Celtics fans want to hear — even though the reports say there is no structural issue and he will be back for the playoffs — in a season that has been dominated by injuries in Boston.

What made the Celtics feel better? Marcus Morris with the game-winner against the Thunder Tuesday night.

That’s a quality win for the Celtics, who remain locked in as the two seed in the East. Rookie Jayson Tatum had 23 and 11 for Boston. As for the Thunder, this snapped a six-game win streak, and while they remain the four seed, the Pelicans and Spurs are now just one game back. There is no chill in the Western Conference.

3) Where have these Timberwolves been? Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns play like the leaders Minnesota needs in win. Minnesota has stumbled about going 5-5 since Jimmy Butler went down injured (he said again Tuesday he expects to be back by the end of the regular season), and at points they have looked leaderless and lost.

Which is why Tuesday’s win against the Clippers was a quality step forward — playing a team right on their heels in the playoff chase, Minnesota started doing things right. They finally got Karl-Anthony Towns more touches and shots (he had 19 field-goal attempts, but through the first eight Butler-less games he was getting just one more shot attempt per game than he did during the rest of the season).

Andrew Wiggins was an active and intense defender on the perimeter causing the Clippers problems (he has this in him but doesn’t bring it consistently). Wiggins had three blocks and on one second-half play basically stole the ball from Austin Rivers twice on one possession. On the other end of the floor, Wiggins had 27 points on 16 shots, and he hit 4-of-5 from three.

Finally, Jeff Teague took this game over in the third quarter — the Clippers had no answer for the Teague/Towns pick-and-roll so the Timberwolves ran it over and over and over until they pulled away with a comfortable lead. Teague got where he wanted, scored 20 points on the night, and just took over.

With the win, Minnesota seems on track to make the postseason for the first time since 2004 — that accomplishes a big goal for this team. Its ultimate aspirations are much higher, but making the postseason and getting a taste of it is the first step on that road.