Russell Westbrook Continues Hot Stretch, Leads Rockets Past Timberwolves

Michael Shapiro

It must be quite the luxury having two MVPs. On a night when James Harden made just three shots, Russell Westbrook carried the Rockets past Minnesota on Friday, scoring a season-high 45 points in Houston's 131-124 road victory. Westbrook and Eric Gordon led the way for the Rockets, and sluggish start to the third quarter was quickly reversed by a scoring barrage from Houston's point guard. The Rockets have a pretty solid safety net when Harden struggles. Westbrook was more than a worthy sidekick on Friday.

Here are three takeaways from Friday's victory as the Rockets advance to 28–16. 

Westbrook Keeps Rolling

We've seen a new-and-improved version of Russell Westbrook since New Year's Eve, with the 2016-17 MVP shedding his inefficiencies en route to one of the most effective stretches of his career. Friday night was a continuation of Westbrook's recent dominance.

Westbrook tallied 45 points and 10 assists in the win over Minnesota, finishing the night 16-27 from the field. The impressive effort was once again fueled by Westbrook's desire to attack the rim. 12 of his 16 field goals came in the lane, and he went to the foul line 13 times. Westbrook has attempted one three-pointer in his last four games. He's unleashing mid-range jumpers as a last resort rather than a first option. Westbrook's play is a stark contrast from the Rockets' three-heavy attack, but the stylistic diversity has been a welcome addition. Daryl Morey's offseason gamble continues to pay off.

Big Bench Contributions

Westbrook wasn't the lone Rocket to deliver a quality performance in Minnesota on Friday. Guard Eric Gordon continued his mini-hot streak from beyond the arc, following up a 25-point effort against Denver on Wednesday with 27 points on 8-19 shooting in Minnesota. Gordon connected on six triples on Friday, including a crucial three to extend the Rockets' lead in the fourth quarter. His bench scoring was critical as Harden struggled.

Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni went only eight deep in his rotation on Friday, but Houston's other two bench players also added impressive contributions. Austin Rivers scored 16 points on 7-8 shooting, while Danuel House buried a pair of triples. Houston's supporting cast stepped up in a big way in Minnesota.

"Austin [Rivers], [Danuel] House, Eric [Gordon], they all did a great job tonight," Westbrook said on the AT&T Sportsnet broadcast postgame. "They kept us afloat. Defended their ass off."

Harden's Slump Holds

Houston has snapped its four-game losing streak with back-to-back victories, but Harden remains mired in one of the strangest slumps of his career. Harden took a serious back seat to Westbrook on Friday, making just three field goals en route to a season-low 12 points. The contest in Minnesota marked Harden's first game without a made three in 2019-20. He's just 22-103 (21.4%) from beyond the arc in his last nine games. Houston has a back-to-back on Sunday and Monday, and a grueling stretch is ahead before the All-Star break. Harden won't have many off days to find his rhythm. 

Missed triples were almost the least of Harden's troubles on Friday. He exited the game in the third quarter, limping to the sideline after taking a knee to the thigh from Karl-Anthony Towns. Harden avoided serious injury, though, missing half of the quarter before riding the exercise bike and returning to the game to start the fourth. Houston should still be at full strength as it rolls through a four-game road trip. 

Up Next: at Denver on Sunday

The Rockets will face the Nuggets for the third time since New Year's Eve on Sunday, this time heading to the Rocky Mountains for an afternoon tilt at the Pepsi Center. Houston has cruised past Denver in its previous two matchups, winning both games by double-digits. Russell Westbrook poured in 28 points and added 16 rebounds in the Rockets' win over Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets on Wednesday.

Tip-off from the Pepsi Center is slated for 2:30 p.m. CT. 

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