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Wolves vs. Rockets: Taming Harden

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The reigning MVP brings the Houston Rockets into town

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Wolves (26-30) vs Rockets (33-23)

7 pm CST
ESPN
HOU -4.0

After winning their last game against the Clippers, Minnesota welcomes the Houston Rockets into Target Center for each team’s last game before the all-star break.

Houston spent a good portion of their season without several key players, including Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela. Capela is still out, but the return of Paul and Gordon has been a nice boost for the Rockets.

It’s remarkable that Houston has been able to stay afloat, or even improve their standing in the West with the aforementioned players out of the lineup.

That, of course, is due to the unbelievable tear that James Harden has been on. We can debate all night long about whether or not you should enjoy watching Harden play, but the results are undeniable. They have the most wins in the NBA and the highest offensive rating since Paul went down.

Additionally, Harden TS% for the season is sitting at 62.3%. For reference, Giannis Antetokoumnpo, a player with prime-Shaq like efficiency numbers, has a TS% of 63.8%. To the naked eye, Harden’s field goal percentage of 44.1% doesn’t look very efficient, but that’s why it is so important to take into account what types of shots a player is taking. Harden’s raw field goal percentage is not good, no. He takes, and makes, so many threes and free throws though, that he is just an unconsciously efficient player.

Minnesota does not have a player available that is truly capable of hanging with Harden tonight. Josh Okogie is probably the closest, but he is still a rookie and has been battling a few nagging injuries of late.

This is a truly impossible assignment defensively for Minnesota. When they had Robert Covington available, they held Harden to 29/4/8 on 8-17/3-7/10-13. That’s very unlikely to be repeated for a variety of reasons.

For one, Robert Covington is obviously not in the lineup tonight. That alone makes this matchup infinitely more favorable for Harden. Beyond that, there’s almost no chance that Harden only takes 17 FGA and 7 3PA. He is AVERAGING 24 FGA and 13 3PA per game.

I really don’t have a clue how Minnesota should go about trying to slow down Harden tonight. The most logical idea would be to make Harden shoot as many step-back threes as possible, but he just makes so many of those that it isn’t a great option either.

The Wolves best option might be to just play Harden as tough as they can one-on-one and not let any of the other guys get going. If Harden goes for 50 but isn’t able to get the rest of his teammates involved, that isn’t the end of the world. The problem is that natural rotations with Harden’s driving ability is to slide in and help, which only leaves shooters open. If anyone has a legitimate idea on how to stop this guy, feel free to comment below.

For Minnesota, there is one matchup in particular that they need to target tonight, and that’s Karl-Anthony Towns against Kenneth Faried. Faried has been a fine player for Houston offensively as the roll man, but he is horrendous defensively. It would be wise for Minnesota to get Towns the ball against Faried as much as possible, in a variety of different ways.

Faried is too short and immobile to handle Towns in the post, and he surely is not able hang with Towns on the perimeter. If KAT is able to stay out of foul trouble (big if), he should feast on Faried for 30+ tonight.

The one thing I do NOT want to see Minnesota try to do is post up Harden on switches. I understand why it’s appetizing. He’s smaller than almost anyone he switches onto. The problem is that this is literally the only type of defense he is good at. He ranks in the 90th percentile in terms of post defense, mostly because of how strong he is. There’s a lot of ways to take advantage of the Beard defensively, but posting him up is not one of them.

Lastly, let’s keep an eye on how the Saric/Towns pairing fares again tonight. In the two games since Saric moved into the starting lineup, the pairing as a net-rating of +26.7 in 34 minutes together. This is obviously a very, very small sample size, but the early returns are encouraging.

Bet of the night

I’m in no way saying that you SHOULD make these bets. I’m not betting them. It’s just a fun extra thing that I’ll be tracking for the remainder of the season. All lines via Bovada.

After the Wolves and Pelicans went over 231 points over the weekend, we improved to 3-5 on the year. Not great by any means, but moving back in the right direction. Let’s get another win tonight.

The pick: Karl-Anthony Towns Over 23.5 points (-125)

Even though Towns struggles to stay on the floor and often does not get the amount of field goal attempts he deserves, this number feels really low. As I talked about above, Towns has a mismatch all night long against Faried. I said I could easily see 30+ from Towns tonight, and I stand by that.

Projected Lineups

Wolves

Jeff Teague

Josh Okogie

Andrew Wiggins

Dario Saric

Karl-Anthony Towns

Rockets

Chris Paul

James Harden

Eric Gordon

P.J. Tucker

Kenneth Faried