HOUSTON – One of Houston’s main strategies on offense wasn’t all that hard to spot.
The Rockets were going to try, through screens, to get Wolves guard D’Angelo Russell switched on James Harden or Russell Westbrook. Then they were going to attack.
It was a largely successful strategy for Houston in a 117-111 victory over the Wolves.
The Wolves held their own, and actually led much of the game until the final shot of the third quarter, when an Austin Rivers three put ahead Houston for good 83-80. Part of that was because Russell was back to his old self offensively after a two-game slump with 28 points on 8-of-15 shooting.
But Harden (37 points, seven assists) and Westbrook (27 points, seven assists) were too much to handle, especially when Russell’s backcourt mate, Malik Beasley, had one of his worst games since joining the Wolves with only five points on 2-of-11 shooting.
The ultimate takeaway for the Wolves had little to do with what happened on the court. It had to do with how Russell and his teammates responded to this in huddles and at halftime.
After the game, forward James Johnson was asked what the Wolves could have done better to help Russell in those situations. His answer had nothing to do with Xs and Os.
“Wake him up earlier,” Johnson said. “D-Lo is one of them guys that steps up to challenges and takes challenges. Likes to be held accountable and it’s weird for a guy that young, a guy that’s coming in to a new team, to have that kind of poise.
“But he’s vulnerable just like everybody else. He wants the truth just like everybody else, and I think we all did a good job of giving that to him and it’s time to move on to the next game.”
Asked and answered.
Once Johnson was done answering at the table — since locker rooms are closed out of coronavirus caution — Russell entered the room and Johnson told Russell he was saying nice things about him.
Russell said he needs to hear those words from time to time.
“More or less, I know myself,” Russell said. “I know I get lax at times. I get nonchalant at times, and it brings my level of play down, because the game kind of comes a bit easy at times. So I get too comfortable, and that’s when I throw that silly turnover or dribble off my foot. Or do something that’s unforced.”
Offense wasn’t much a problem for Russell, as he made enough shots to keep the Wolves in it until Houston pulled away with an 8-0 run with the score 94-89 in the fourth. Harden had five of those eight as Houston opened its biggest lead, 102-89.
Wolves coach Ryan Saunders said Russell’s offensive improvement came in part because of the “ton” of film he watched the past few days.
It was great to see,” Saunders said. “He was adamant on the plane yesterday as we’re watching film, picking his spots, finding his openings. He’s fun to coach because he’s a cerebral basketball player.”
Saunders also didn’t mind some of what he saw defensively from Russell.
“I believe in D’Angelo as a guy who’s going to be able — with his wingspan, with his length — a guy who can be a good defender in this league …” Saunders said. “We got confidence in D’Angelo. I thought he had a lot of good defensive possessions that we’re going to be able to point to and grow from.”
There were also moments of frustration. Like one Westbrook dunk when Russell offered the matador defense. When asked how it was to guard Westbrook and Harden most of the night, Russell said “tough” three times to begin his answer. But he was thankful he had his teammates there to hold his feet to the fire.
“You find yourself getting lax … ” Russell said. “That level of communication is developing our trust and developing our feel for each other. You need that because you know it’s coming from a good heart, a good perspective.”