HOUSTON – The last time the Timberwolves played the Rockets, they felt they played good defense on James Harden in a 121-11 victory on Feb. 13.
How many points did Harden, the league’s leading scorer, score that night? Forty-two.
“There’s not many people in the league you can say we played great defense on and he scores 40,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “That just shows you how special he is.”
Harden, who will lead the Rockets against the Wolves on Sunday, has been enjoying a monumental scoring season. He’s averaging 36.1 points per game, which would be the seventh-highest total in NBA history.
Only Michael Jordan (once, in 1986-87) and Wilt Chamberlain (five times) have had higher scoring averages than Harden.
The Wolves have won both games against the Rockets this season, but it has been difficult to slow Harden. In that last meeting, rookie Josh Okogie provided a highlight-reel moment with a block of a Harden three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring, an emotional moment that helped lift the Wolves to the win.
Okogie likely will draw the assignment of guarding Harden again Sunday, assuming he plays. He is questionable because of a cervical strain, the Houston Chronicle reported. Okogie has tried to figure out ways to guard against Harden’s tendencies, such as his devastating step-back jumper that he can hit from anywhere on the court.
Harden is also a master at drawing fouls and leads the league with 11.3 free throws per game. Okogie said the key to avoiding those is to “show the ref my hands.”
“Because when you get your hands in there, he’s really good at selling it and drawing fouls,” Okogie said. “The best thing you can do is show the ref your hands so you don’t even appear to foul.”
Interim coach Ryan Saunders joked that he didn’t want to give away his strategy for how he was going to utilize Towns to guard Harden on the pick-and-roll and guard against Harden’s patented floater.
“He’s already hard enough to guard without giving the full game plan,” Saunder said. “Trust me, we see that he can score in the A, B and C areas [at the rim, free-throw line and three-point line] and you factor in that floater too. He has something new all the time. That’s what the elite players do. You see that with [Towns].”
If there’s an aspect of Harden’s game that fans overlook, Saunders said, it’s his ability to dissect defenses.
“It’s also his ability to pass the ball, be a playmaker,” Saunders said. “Just how he’s great reading the low man, great finding his teammates and then you factor into the equation he’s one of the best scorers we’ve seen, he’s very hard to guard.”
There’s a lot of respect emanating from the Wolves when it comes to Harden, especially from Towns.
“I’ve been fortunate to be in the league when he was just getting in his prime,” Towns said. “I’ve seen him play and I’ve played against him a lot, especially being in the [Western Conference]. You just admire and respect the way he gets fouls. You understand how he gets them and when he’s in a good rhythm, there’s not many people in the world that could beat him in a scoring contest.”
And there’s not many in NBA history who could as well.