Both teams were tired, playing on the tail end of back-to-back games. But Houston was likely more so, because the Rockets had to travel to the Twin Cities after playing at home Friday night.
Both teams were shorthanded, but Houston lacked more in quality and quantity. The Timberwolves were without Andrew Wiggins for a second consecutive game, and Josh Okogie — a key cog in the Wolves’ plans to guard Rockets guard James Harden — was a late scratch because of a sore knee. But the Rockets were without three starters and four of their top six players.
Houston (10-3) still ran away with a 125-105 victory that was tightly contested for most of the first half but largely one-sided in the second. Harden scored 49 points, handing the Wolves a second home loss in two nights.
It’s only the second two-game losing streak of the young season for Minnesota (7-6).
“You guys might call it a funk, I call it the NBA season,” Wolves coach Ryan Saunders said. “I have thought about this: Two days ago we were feeling great. But one of our key members has something that he needs to make sure that he takes care of before he takes care of basketball — the family aspect of things. And we support him. We will regroup when we get him back.”
He was referring to Wiggins, who was away because of a death in the family, but not having Okogie hurt a well, especially defensively. One of the team’s quickest perimeter defenders, Okogie was going to guard Harden a lot. Because of the late scratch, those duties fell to rookie Jarrett Culver and veteran Robert Covington, among others.
And they did a relatively good job. Harden needed 41 shots to score his points. Still, he was the impetus for most of the Rockets’ runs Saturday.
But rookie Chris Clemons scored a career-high 19 points. Ben McLemore had 20, Austin Rivers 19.
“He scored 49 on 41 shots,” said Covington, who scored 17 and was the Wolves’ only plus player (plus-11). “That’s what we want. We followed the game plan with him. But it’s the other guys — that same thing we did yesterday — [that] hurt us and that’s what dictated the game.”
In a back-and-forth first half, the Wolves led 62-56 after Karl-Anthony Towns slammed home a rebound with 1:32 left in the second quarter. From then on it was all Rockets; 8-0 to end the half, then 61-43 in the second half, on 46.7% shooting.
Towns, who scored 27 points with 15 rebounds, got only six shots in the second half, and was wondering aloud whether he should have attacked the Rockets’ double-teams more aggressively. Jake Layman scored 21 in his first start and Culver had 13 off the bench.
“There’s a reason they’re 10-3,” Saunders said. “They saw they had to turn it up, and they turned it up a notch. It’s good for us to see that, too. You obviously want to win, but we understand we have to have progress in that if we want to get to an elite level like [the Rockets] have been for a while.”
To be fair, the last-second defensive changes caused by Okogie’s absence played a part. But the Wolves came out of the gate in the second half cold. They shot 8-for-20 in the third quarter and missed 11 consecutive shots during one stretch.
“This [season] is 82 games,” Towns said. “I don’t care who you are. The greatest teams, they had moments like this. We’ve just gotta move on. I’m not going to tell you guys that we’re not taking this very serious, it’s not raising some alarms. But this is a long season. Things like this happen. We’ve got to continue to fight.”