HOUSTON -- MVP favorite James Harden earned praise for perhaps the best defensive performance of his career after one of the worst shooting outings in NBA playoff history.
Harden scored 12 points but was only 2-of-18 shooting in the Houston Rockets' 102-82 rout of the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night that gave the NBA's overall top seed a 2-0 series lead, the first player to make that few shots with as many attempts in a playoff game since Cleveland's LeBron James in a loss to the Boston Celtics on May 6, 2008.
Harden, whose defense had been the subject of ridicule in recent seasons, recorded three steals and a playoff career-high-tying three blocked shots. It is the first time he had at least three steals and three blocks in a regular-season or playoff game in his career.
"To me, it's what he did on the defensive end that was amazing," Rockets small forward Trevor Ariza said. "He really stepped up and sat down on defense. That's something he's been working on all year. He's improved unbelievably."
According to basketball-reference.com's database, there have now been 16 players since 1964 to make two or fewer field goals with at least 15 attempts in an NBA playoff game. Harden is the only one to do so in a victory.
"I'm more happy than anybody right now, believe it or not, just because I'm not really worried about my shot," said Harden, who carried the Rockets with a 44-point performance in their Game 1 win. "I had those same shots in Game 1, and they went in. In Game 3, I'll shoot those same shots.
"But I'm fortunate to have guys like Gerald [Green] and just the entire team to have my back on both ends of the floor. I just tried to make an impact on the game in other ways, not just offensively. Happy we got the win."
Harden's ability to defend power forwards and centers in the post has been critical to the Rockets' switch-heavy scheme all season. According to NBA.com's advanced statistics, Harden allowed only 0.73 points per possession on post-ups this season, ranking in the 82nd percentile of the league.
That has been a factor in All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns' struggles so far in this series. Towns, who has scored a total of only 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting in the two games, has not been able to take advantage of the times when Harden switched onto him. One of Harden's steals in Game 2 came when he muscled Towns off the big man's preferred spot on the block to help cause a poor entry pass by Minnesota point guard Jeff Teague.
The Rockets had a 15-point halftime lead despite Harden, the NBA's scoring leader with 30.4 points per game this season, making only one of 12 shots from the field. They led by as many as 27 in the second half.
"I don't have to worry about me shooting the basketball," said Harden, who had seven assists. "When we've got guys behind me telling me, 'Keep shooting, that's your shot,' I'm going to keep shooting. On the defensive end, I've just got to make sure I'm locked in, creating energy, make sure my rotations are really good and keep communicating.
"I didn't even know what I was shooting, but I knew I wasn't making a lot of shots. Or any. But we were up 15 or 17 points. That made me feel really good."
Chris Paul, who had an off night in Game 1, picked up the offensive slack for Harden, scoring 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting and dishing out eight assists. Green gave the Rockets a boost off the bench with 21 points, including 12 in the second quarter as the Rockets built a commanding lead.
The Rockets collectively shrugged off Harden's rough shooting night as a fluke.
"I don't know how many times that's going to happen. Probably never again," Paul said. "For us, he's going to keep going, he's going to keep going. You give him 18 shots next game and see what happens."