HOUSTON — The critics James Harden claims not to hear won’t be hushed by a spectacular performance in the series opener of the first round. For Harden, now more than ever, the playoffs are about how he finishes, not how he starts.
And the Rockets, record-setting 3-point gunners whose long-range touch (outside of Harden) failed them Sunday night at the Toyota Center, needed that kind of performance from their superstar — a player who infamously no-showed as Houston’s season ended on its home court last May.
Harden torched the Timberwolves for 44 points on 15-of-26 shooting, including 7-of-12 from 3-point range. The rest of the Rockets made only 3-of-25 3-point attempts — a rare 12 percent brickfest for a team that broke its own one-year-old record for 3s made in a season — but Harden was simply too good to let eighth-seeded Minnesota start the series by sneaking out an upset.
Time after time, “The Beard” hit big shots when momentum seemed to be swaying to Minnesota’s side. Soon after the Timberwolves took a lead midway through the fourth quarter, Harden re-entered the game and immediately went on a do-it-himself 7-0 run, hitting a floater off the glass, driving for a layup and drilling a pull-up 3 in transition.
At that point, after Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau called timeout, Harden strutted down the center of the court and pointed to the hardwood as if to remind everyone that this is his house.
Harden’s brilliance, highlighted by his 13 points in the fourth quarter, allowed Houston to overcome a rather forgettable Rockets playoff debut by Chris Paul. Paul uncharacteristically had more turnovers (six) than assists (four) and finished with only 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Paul is the co-star Harden helped recruit last summer, a pairing that led the Rockets to a franchise-record 65-win regular season to claim the top overall seed. But Sunday night, Paul’s six turnovers tied for his second-most in a postseason game (he had eight against the San Antonio Spurs in 2012).
Paul’s final blunder — an unnecessary airmailed pass out of bounds with 8.7 seconds left — could have really bitten the Rockets. But Jimmy Butler, playing with a black wrap on his sore right wrist, airballed a tightly contested 3 that could have tied the game, completing his 4-of-11 shooting night.
It also helped Houston’s cause that Minnesota’s other All-Star, center Karl-Anthony Towns, had the kind of awful playoff debut that will invite a lot of criticism during the three long days before Game 2. Towns was oddly an afterthought offensively, scoring only eight points on 3-of-9 shooting.
Houston’s Clint Capela dominated the matchup between two of the NBA’s best young big men, producing 24 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds by halftime, feasting on feeds from Harden, who finished with eight assists. Capela is the first player with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in either half of a playoff game since Kevin Durant on May 15, 2014.
Harden never even watched the film that that Game 6 stinker against the Spurs that ended his season a year ago. He certainly has no interest in revisiting it now, not when he has the opportunity to make the kind of history that would make any previous playoff failures distant memories.
Sunday night was the first step. Harden and the Rockets have 15 more to go.