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So far the trade for Chris Paul to give the Houston Rockets
another superstar to help James Harden has worked famously.

Now the two Authentic
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, who have both had their fair share of
playoff disappointments, will try to carry their regular-season success into the
postseason when the Rockets open a first-round series with Minnesota on Sunday
night.

The guards have been effusive in their praise for one another, with Harden
recently joking that his relationship with the nine-time All-Star was ”love at
first sight.” Paul didn’t go quite that far, but a huge smile crossed his often
serious face when asked how their pairing has worked.

”Unbelievable,” he said. ”You just (don’t) get this opportunity too often in
a career to play with somebody like James … you get a chance to appreciate
greatness.

”What he’s doing on a nightly basis and stuff like that, it’s crazy and I’m
in awe,” Paul continued. ”I’m grateful I get to play alongside him.”

When told of what Paul said about him, Harden was quick to answer.

”You can tell,” he said. ”It feels like it’s been forever but it’s not even
been a year yet.”

Their work in the regular season led the Rockets to a franchise-record 65
wins, their first No. 1 seed and sixth straight playoff appearance. They are
looking to win the title for the first time capturing back-to-back championships
in 1994-95.

For the 32-year-old Paul, it’s a chance for him to finally shake off years
off playoff woes after making nine playoff trips without advancing past the
second round. But if he is haunted by the ghosts of playoffs past, he wouldn’t
acknowledge it and was dismissive when asked if he thought this was his best
chance to win it all.

”I don’t know,” he said. ”I don’t think about all that.”

What he and the Rockets do know is that they’re facing a talented team in the
eighth-seeded Timberwolves Denzel Ward
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, who had to win their last regular-season game to get
into the postseason. They ended the NBA’s longest active playoff drought with
their berth, putting them back in the postseason for the first time since 2004
when they lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

Getting the Timberwolves into the playoffs is a huge accomplishment for the
entire team, but might mean just a little more to star Karl-Anthony Towns, who
made a vow the night Minnesota selected him with the top overall pick in the
2015 draft.

”It means more than I think words can express honestly,” he said. ”I made a
promise to … Flip Saunders and it meant a lot to me that I was able to keep my
word.”

Some things to know as the Timberwolves and Rockets open their series:

BACK HOME

The series is a homecoming for Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, who grew up in
Tomball, a suburb about 35 miles from downtown Houston. But he insists he won’t
have any time to get back out there this week.

”Nope,” he said. ”Zero (time). I ain’t even going home. I’m here to
work.”

But he did spend a little time on Saturday reminiscing about his high school
days when he idolized a former Rockets star.

”I used to walk around the hallways and in the gym thinking I was Tracy
McGrady,” he said. ”I remember it like it was yesterday. He was my favorite
player. I wanted to wear his number, wear his tennis shoes, all of that good
stuff.”

Butler, who returned on April 6 after missing 17 games with a knee injury,
said he’s fully recovered from his injury and is ”well-rested” entering the
playoffs.

PLAYOFF HISTORY

This is the second time these teams have met in the playoffs. Their other
meeting came in Minnesota’s first trip in 1997 Billy Price
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, when the Timberwolves were swept in three games.
That Houston team was led by Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley,
and the Wolves featured Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury and Tom Gugliotta.

LIMIT KAT FROM LONG RANGE

The Rockets are resigned to the fact that Towns, who led the NBA in
double-doubles, will get his points under the basket and plenty of rebounds.

”He’s going to get a double-double,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.
”That’s who he is.”

However, they are not OK with letting him shoot 3-pointers. The 7-foot Towns
ranked 14th in the league with a 42 percent average from 3-point range and
knocked down a career-high 120 3-pointers this season.

”We (can’t) leave him open or let him walk into a 3 because we’re not
guarding him,” D’Antoni said. ”We have to be aware of that. You can’t take away
his post-ups and his moves in there. He’s going to score on anybody, but you can
do a really good job on the 3s.”

HARDEN’S MOTIVATION

Despite finishing as the runner-up for MVP last season and being a
front-runner for this year’s award, Harden still faces plenty of criticism for
some of his past performances in the playoffs, notably, a terrible performance
in an embarrassing 114-75 elimination loss to San Antonio in the conference
semifinals last season.

But he has never been motivated by criticism Carlos
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, and he finds his drive in a far different
place.

”Just going out there and being the best that I can be,” he said. ”There’s no
negativity that someone can say that can motivate me. Some people can get
motivated by that. I don’t really care.”

After Houston fell into a quick one-run hole, Evan Gattis appreciated how the
Astros came right back swinging.

Fences-clearing swings.

”It’s like let `em know we’re here, you know?” he said.

Gattis hit a three-run homer and drove in five runs, Carlos Correa returned
from a four-game absence and homered on the first pitch he saw, and the Astros
beat the Oakland Athletics 6-3 on Tuesday night for their sixth straight
win.

Gattis has seven homers and 20 RBIs over his last 14 games.

”It’s been good for the last month,” he said. ”It’s easy to lose sight of
that when you have a couple games where it’s like 1 for 8 or 9 or something like
that the last couple games in Texas. It’s good to kind of sustain it a little
bit.”

Lance McCullers Jr. (8-3) struck out five over seven strong innings, allowing
two runs and five hits while winning a second straight decision. He surrendered
Stephen Piscotty’s sacrifice fly in the second and then kept Oakland’s powerful
order in check.

Correa was back in the lineup at shortstop after missing a series sweep at
Texas with soreness in his right side after leaving last Wednesday’s game
against the Mariners following an at-bat in the seventh inning.

Oakland scored on a wild pitch in the first before the Astros answered
against Daniel Mengden (6-6). Correa homered leading off the second. Gattis hit
his 11th homer three batters later, and then chased Mengden with a two-run
double with two outs in the fifth.

”He’s obviously seeing the ball and he’s putting the barrel on it and coming
up with huge hits, a lot of them doing damage,” manager A.J. Hinch said.

Matt Chapman hit three doubles before being hit by a pitch in the left hand
in the eighth by Collin McHugh. X-rays were negative. Chapman’s three doubles
matched the Oakland single-game record, done for the 28th time and first since
Matt Joyce last Sept. 27.

”He’s using the whole field, seeing the ball early. Earlier in the season he
was similar to this but right now I think he’s seeing the ball as well as he has
all year Cheap
J'Mon Moore Jersey
,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. ”You’re seeing
that the last few games.”

Ken Giles finished for his 11th save in 11 tries as the World Series
champions moved to 6-1 so far this season against the A’s.

Both teams left the bases loaded in the fourth.

Mengden was charged with six runs and eight hits.

BIG-TIME PARADE

The A’s had some fun with the NBA Golden State Warriors’ victory parade
through downtown Oakland on Tuesday.

”We’re back after a day off and Oakland even had a parade to celebrate us
returning,” the A’s posted on Twitter.

SPECIAL NOD

Hinch is making a special addition to his All-Star coaching staff for next
month’s game in Washington: Retired Astros first base coach Rich Dauer will be
in uniform and assisting Hinch.

”Just like old times,” Hinch said.

Last November, Dauer was rushed to a hospital immediately after Houston’s
victory parade to celebrate its first World Series title. He survived a
difficult surgery on a blood clot in his brain.

Dauer played for the Baltimore Orioles from 1976-85, winning a World Series
in 1983. Dauer was hired by the Astros after the 2014 season.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Astros: There’s no structural issue with RHP Joe Smith’s sore elbow that put
him on the disabled list last week. Smith saw a couple of different doctors and
for now it’s just going to take time to let the inflammation calm down, Hinch
said.

Athletics: The A’s plan to make a decision as soon as Wednesday on whether
RHP Trevor Cahill will need a stint on the DL, which seems likely given his
Achilles injury is not improving. Melvin expects RHP Chris Bassitt would return
from Triple-A Nashville to replace Cahill in the rotation. ”If we do this, he
deserves another chance,” Melvin said. … LHP Brett Anderson is scheduled for his
first bullpen session Wednesday as he works back from a strained shoulder that
landed him on the DL on May 19.

UP NEXT

Astros: RHP Gerrit Cole (7-1, 2.16 ERA) totaled 21 strikeouts to just four
earned runs allowed in his first two starts against the A’s this season.

Athletics: RHP Paul Blackburn (1-0, 1.50 ERA) makes his second start since
coming off the 60-day DL after he was sidelined with a strained forearm.

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