HOUSTON — With their attention at least partially focused on their first-round playoff opponent since last week, the Houston Rockets have performed like a distracted squad ready for the regular season to end and for the postseason to commence.
With the Minnesota Timberwolves (31-50) paying a visit to Toyota Center on Wednesday night, one more game stands between Houston (54-27) and its Western Conference first-round showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder. With the third seed in their possession since the calendar turned, the Rockets have been tweaking rotations and striving to maintain health down the stretch.
Coach Mike D’Antoni has taken to resting starters in recent games. Houston played without forward Trevor Ariza, reserve guard Eric Gordon and reserve center Nene in its 135-128 win over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. The following night in Los Angeles, the Rockets were again without Nene, plus guards Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams and center Clint Capela.
“I think our guys are ready,” D’Antoni said. “The biggest thing is we wanted to get some guys some minutes. I was under a minutes restriction for a lot of guys, and I thought they got some good work in. Overall, (the result is) to be expected.”
In their final tuneup for the postseason, the Rockets have a few minor milestones in reach. James Harden, All-Star guard and MVP candidate, needs six assists to become the first player in history with 2,000 points, 900 assists and 600 rebounds in a season. Harden leads the NBA with 11.2 assists per game.
With one 3-point field goal, forward Ryan Anderson would reach 200 and join Harden (257) and Gordon (243) at that benchmark. Eight players have hit 200 3-pointers this season, with Anderson and Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (both at 199) and Clippers guard J.J. Redick (198) on the doorstep. Westbrook (rest) did not participate on Tuesday night against the Timberwolves.
A triumph over Minnesota would enable these Rockets to match the 1992-93 and 2007-08 teams for the fourth-most victories in franchise history.
The Timberwolves dropped their fifth consecutive game, 100-98, vs. the Thunder. Minnesota, with its promising nucleus of young talent plus accomplished coach Tom Thibodeau, entered the season with playoff dreams but instead will post a sub-.400 winning percentage for the 10th time in 11 years.
While Andrew Wiggins will likely close as the NBA leader in minutes — he has 3,018 entering Wednesday, 24 more than teammate Karl-Anthony Towns — and Towns bypassed Kevin Love (2,010 points in 2013-14) to set the franchise single-season scoring mark (2,033 and counting), Minnesota lost Zach LaVine to a left ACL tear on Feb. 3 and never got its defense anchored (26th in defensive rating).
Given the expectations, the finale will represent the end of a disappointing campaign for the Timberwolves, who rolled out a rebrand with a new primary logo on Tuesday night and the promise of new uniforms in the coming days.
“The challenge for us is we have to continue to build winning habits each and every day,” Thibodeau said. “Keep putting everything you have into it. That’s something we talked about at the beginning of the season, and we still talk about it now.”