HOUSTON – Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose knows a little something about league MVP performances when he sees them, and he witnessed one in Sunday’s 104-101 loss at Houston, the opening game of a first-round NBA playoffs series.
Doing some of what Rose once did to opponents during his 2011 MVP season, Rockets superstar James Harden toyed with the Timberwolves often Sunday, showing the ball before taking it away with a deft crossover or between-the-legs dribble while he decided whether to destroy with the step-back three-point shot or a fierce drive to the rim.
In Game 1, he scored 25 of his 44 points in the game’s final 18 minutes and made seven three-pointers, while his three-point-happy teammates made only three more.
Rose, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins, with help from teammates, all unsuccessfully tried to defend an artist who once described seeing a bigger defender alone in front of him “one of the best feelings in the world.”
The Wolves made only two fewer threes than the Rockets and played their part in one of the worst games you’ll ever see Harden’s superstar mate Chris Paul play, but Houston held off the Wolves in the final seconds because of Harden’s virtuoso performance and Butler’s two-point shot that missed before the buzzer when his team needed a three to tie.
When the playoffs lights shine brightly, league MVPs usually do, too, and Harden is the front-runner to win this season’s award for his first time.
“That’s when you have to pull it out and that’s when I want to see it,” Rose said after Sunday’s game. “You have to play hard and I’m going to foul you and I want to see it all. [Sunday], he showed everything he’s got.”
Some pundits questioned whether one basketball was enough to share when the Rockets last summer traded for Paul and united two gifted but ball-dominant guards in a $42 million backcourt.
A league-best 65-17 record and Harden’s scoring title answered any such questions. Paul’s presence is among moves management made to improve the three-point shooting Rockets defensively.
Played together or apart, Harden and Paul give the Rockets a future Hall of Fame guard on the floor every second of every game, if coach Mike D’Antoni so chooses, as he did Sunday.
“It’s a great luxury,” Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson said. “That’s what comes when you have good management and you have your owner willing to pay a certain amount of dollars.”
At the risk of sounding “mushy,” Harden last week described their union as “love at first sight.” He also calls an intimate relationship built around mutual competitiveness and love for the game — not to mention dinners and bowling nights together — one that “made sense” and “was just meant to be.”
Paul, in turn, said he calls himself “in awe” and “grateful” for the chance to “appreciate greatness” from an arm’s length.
“You just never get this opportunity too often in your career to play with a guy like James,” Paul said.
D’Antoni admits he, too, admires both players nightly. He said he knew the two could play together, maybe not as well as they have for a team that still must prove it can win big in the playoffs.
“Most of the time if superstars want to do it, they can,” D’Antoni said. “Their games complement each other. They both can play off the ball, on the ball. Now it’s just a matter of being able to defer in the right moments. They’re able to play the same position so one is on the floor always. We can keep them on the floor for 48 minutes. That’s why it really works.”
Harden credits his and the Rockets’ seasons to chemistry and a creative workplace that goes beyond his relationship with Paul and makes him happy to put in the work every day.
“It has only been a year, it feels like forever,” Harden said. “Everybody is just happy to be around each other. Who wants to go to work sad and depressed and not excited about it?”
Butler vows to defend Harden better in Wednesday’s Game 3, admitting that “a free throw, a three-pointer, a layup, he got whatever he wanted” in Game 1.
Wiggins and Rose face the same challenge against a player so talented one man can’t guard him.
“I’m doing the best I can, man,” said Rose, who played 24 minutes Sunday after Wiggins and Jeff Teague found foul trouble. “My job is just to irritate him, try to get under his skin. Pick him up full court and just compete. That’s all I’m doing right now.”
Wolves veteran guard Aaron Brooks played parts of two seasons with Harden in Houston five years ago and was among those who wondered how the two would fit together.
Count him among the believers.
“Just two of the best guys with the ball in their hands,” Brooks said. “I guess I was kind of curious how it was going to fit together. Chris has brought an awareness and intensity to the game that has helped a lot defensively and they’re just taking turns making great plays.”