Chris Clemons Shines as Undermanned Rockets Defeat Timberwolves

Michael Shapiro

We could lead nearly every Rockets recap fawning over the brilliance of James Harden, but the two-time scoring champion wasn't alone in his strong play in Saturday's 125-105 victory in Minnesota. A pair of former G Leaguers made major contributions, while Ben McLemore turned in his second straight strong performance with 20 points on 7-16 shooting. The Rockets advanced to 10–3 on the season after Saturday's win in a back-to-back, returning home after seven consecutive victories. Houston is rolling after a rough start.

Here are three takeaways from Saturday's victory.

Clemons Carries Bench Units 

The Rockets' slate of injuries forced a slew of rotation changes for head coach Mike D'Antoni on Saturday. Tyson Chandler was the starting center for the second straight game, while Austin Rivers started at point guard. Rivers' insertion into the starting lineup moved Chris Clemons to the first guard off the bench, and the 5'9" rookie delivered.

Clemons poured in a career-high 19 points in Saturday's win, shooting 7-11 from the field and 5-9 from three. He launched triples far beyond the arc a la Eric Gordon, and the diminutive guard was fearless attacking the tin. He even held up fairly well on the defensive end, avoiding post matchups and diving into passing lanes on numerous occasions. Clemons' time in the G League with Rio Grande Valley appears to have paid dividends.

Clemons' performance in Minnesota wasn't exactly an aberration. He led the NCAA in scoring as a senior in 2018-19, averaging 30.1 points per game. Clemons was Harden-esque with the Fighting Camels (which, it should be noted, is a fantastic mascot). He won't have anywhere close to the same role with Houston, though Clemons is quickly carving out a role in D'Antoni's rotation. 

Harden Continues Scoring Explosion

Ok, now to the headliner. Clemons shined on Saturday night, but his performance ultimately paled in comparison to the game's leading scorer. Harden let it fly with abandon with Russell Westbrook out of the lineup on Saturday, finishing the night with 49 points on 41 shots. It wasn't the most efficient performance of the season from Harden, but such volume is necessary with such a short-handed roster. Houston's attack isn't complicated; it's also the No. 3 offense in basketball after Saturday night.

Harden's 49 points added to his dominant statistical campaign in 2019-20. He has now scored 40-plus in seven of 13 games, tying Wilt Chamberlain for the most all-time through 13 contests. Bradley Beal is the only other player with multiple 40-point games in 2019-20. The rest of the NBA has combined for eight. Harden is nearly out-dueling the entire league. His scoring tear remains unprecedented in the three-point era. 

Hartenstein Contains Towns

Clemons led the Rockets with a plus-32 in 28 minutes on Saturday. Fellow former G Leaguer Isaiah Hartenstein finished second with a plus-31. The 21-year-old center bounced back from a shaky game on Friday with a 16-rebound effort in Minnesota, five of which came on the offensive glass. Hartenstein can't provide the same vertical spacing as Clint Capela–nor does he come all that close–but that doesn't mean he can't be an effective backup big. Hartenstein has proved mobile for his size, and he held his ground down low against Karl-Anthony Towns on Saturday. The Rockets won the points in the paint battle against Minnesota, and they finished even in offensive boards. D'Antoni will likely take that production given Houston's light center rotation. 

Up Next: vs. Blazers on Monday

The Rockets will look to extend their seven-game winning streak on Monday as Damian Lillard and the Blazers come to the Toyota Center. Carmelo Anthony won't play for Portland, while Capela and Danuel House's status' are unknown. The Blazers have struggled out of the gate in 2019-20, sitting at 5–8 following a win over the Spurs on Saturday. Lillard has shined despite the struggles, entering Saturday averaging 30.5 points per game.

Tip-off on Monday is slated for 7 p.m. CT.