HOUSTON — Rarely can you call Game 1 of a seven-game series a “must win,” but the way things unfolded Sunday night in Houston, the Timberwolves had to win Game 1.
They didn’t get it. Minnesota, a heavy first-round underdog, failed to take advantage of an off night from the best team in basketball, falling 104-101 to the Rockets to dig a 1-0 hole in the franchise’s first playoff game since 2004.
No one expected the eighth-seeded Wolves to win Game 1 — many don’t expect them to win a game in this series — but Sunday set up well for the upset. Houston, the deadliest 3-point shooting team in the NBA, went just 10 for 37 from deep. Chris Paul was off. Minnesota got monster minutes from Derrick Rose.
That all added up to the Wolves holding a one-point advantage with just more than six minutes to play. Winning Game 1 would shift the narrative in the series and put the pressure on Houston.
Instead, the Rockets went on a run.
Or, more specifically, James Harden did.
The league’s likely most valuable player torched Minnesota down the stretch. Harden scored 13 fourth-quarter points, including 10 straight to give the Rockets a 99-91 lead with just more than three minutes to play. The next possession, he fed Clint Capela with an easy alley oop, an exclamation mark on the Rockets’ big run.
Harden finished with 44 points and eight assists.
“Another day for James,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s done it all year, and he really stepped up. We were struggling to make shots, struggling to really have any kind of rhythm of play, and James put us on his back and he’s been doing it for a while now.”
While Rose and Andrew Wiggins said they did what they could in defending Harden, Jimmy Butler was more critical of his performance.
“It’s got to be a lot better,” Butler said. “I’ve got to do my job more effectively on the defensive end. 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.”
Harden carried Houston in the second half like Capela did in the first. The Rockets’ young big man tallied 20 points and 10 rebounds over the first 24 minutes. In total, he tallied 24 points and 12 boards, dominating the center matchup against Karl-Anthony Towns, who finished with just eight points to go with 12 rebounds. It’s just the fifth time over the past two seasons that Towns finished with fewer than 10 points.
The Timberwolves kept it close to the end, with a late Rockets turnover giving Minnesota the ball down three in the closing seconds, but Butler’s attempt at a tying 3-pointer fell woefully short. Butler is now 0 for 12 this season in the final 10 seconds when the Wolves are tied or losing by three or less.
“Shoot to make it, came up short,” Butler said. “I’ll shoot it again if I get the opportunity.”
The Wolves didn’t get enough from their big guns to contend with a team that has the firepower Houston does. After a strong first quarter, Wiggins struggled in the second half. At no point did Butler take over the game, finishing with 13 points.
Rose, who scored 16 points, looked like Minnesota’s best player for much of the night. While his contributions are welcomed by the Wolves, they’re not enough.
It’s tough to see Houston shooting as poorly as it did Sunday at any point through the remainder of the series — D’Antoni joked that the Wolves put “a hex” on the Rockets or “were giving us a stink eye.” Houston shot worse than the 27 percent it hit on 3-pointers Sunday just five times this season, and the Wolves still couldn’t take advantage. Although the Game 1 loss was far more competitive than any of the team’s four regular season meetings — which Houston swept convincingly — Sunday was an opportunity missed for Minnesota.
“It came down to the stretch and we had a chance to win it, so we know what we’ve got to do next game,” Wiggins said. “I feel like we were right there.”
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