The real season has started for the Rockets, and how they perform in the playoffs will determine how this team is remembered. The opening series against the Minnesota T Wolves will be a test, as Joel Blank writes, but one the Rockets should pass. They did in Game 1, but it was not easy.
Here are five quick thoughts from the Rockets Game 1, 104-101 win over the Timberwolves.
1) Don't panic: Yes, the game was close and in doubt until the final seconds. The Rockets needed a huge effort from James Harden (44 points) to escape with a win. He came up big in the fourth quarter in particular. But the Rockets can play a lot better. The live by the 3, die by the 3 mentality almost killed them. They were a brutal 10 of 37 from behind the arc in Game 1. Harden was 7 of 12, making the rest of the team 3 of 25. That simply won't cut it. Expect a much better effort in Game 2.
2) The Wolves can improve, too, but how much? Karl-Anthony Towns had just eight points and the Wolves seemed to ignore him in the paint. He should be much more involved going forward. But it's also hard to expect 16 points out of Derek Rose every night. Still, a nice, balanced game from the Wolves, who had every chance to steal Game 1.
3) Chris Paul needs to be much better. He had just 14 points on 5 of 14 shooting, but most telling was a season high six turnovers, including two really bad ones late in the game when the Rockets should have closed it out. They will need more from him if they are to accomplish their goals and protecting the basketball late in games should be priority No. 1.
4) Mismatch on the bench: The Rockets should have the advantage in depth, but they were outscored 38-16 by the Wolves bench in Game 1, part of the reason the Wolves hung around so long.
5) Closing the door: Harden's big fourth-quarter effort got it done, but the Rockets tried their hardest to fail to close out the game. They gave up a free fast break after a missed free throw where everyone stood around, thinking there was another free throw to come. Paul's awful pass gave the Wolves a chance at a late-tying three. The game basically became a Harden one on one, run down the clock contest. That's fine if Harden is hitting his shots, and he was in Game 1. But they lose this game a lot of nights. The late-game questions will continue, especially if they blow a game like this.
The bottom line: Losing a Game 1 at home is never ideal, so the Rockets did well to escape. The Timberwolves came in having already essentially started the playoffs with a play-in game, while the Rockets have been coasting for weeks, so the signs all pointed to Minnesota throwing a scare into them. Having said that, Paul will be better in Game 2, Mike D'Antoni will make some adjustments that will hopefully lead to better 3-point shooting, the bench should be more competitive and the Rockets should improve as the series goes on.