There was 7:50 remaining in the second quarter. The Timberwolves came out strong again and had pushed ahead of the top-seeded Rockets by seven points. After a surprising win in Game 3, could it be possible for lightning to strike for the second time in three days?
Up to that point, Rockets star James Harden had two points and was 0-for-7 from the field. Even with Karl-Anthony Towns dealing foul trouble and Jeff Teague dislocating his finger, this felt manageable. Harden obviously wasn’t going to miss the rest of his shots but him struggling benefitted the Wolves.
Suddenly, the game began to shift.
Houston swingman Trevor Ariza hit Clint Capela for a cutting layup. From there, the Rockets would begin a 14-3 run to take a four-point lead when Jimmy Butler came out of the game for his first rest. Butler had played the entire game to this point but it was difficult to take him out when their opponent was surging.
Harden began to heat up after missing his first seven shots by hitting four of his next seven to have 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting in just the second quarter.
The Rockets managed a 50-49 lead at the half. Considering Butler didn’t play half of the game, this was ok. Teague also had his finger popped back into place and wrapped. It still felt like the Wolves could even the series at two.
What exactly happened at halftime in the Houston locker room, we may never know. We can guess that it must have been something special based on what happened in the third quarter that sealed the game for the Rockets. And the Wolves had no chance of winning this game from there.
Coach Mike D’Antoni joked after the game that they just made adjustments and only adjustments. Harden laughed off the idea that anything significant was said or that he psyched himself up. “We just played basketball,” said Harden.
“Just played basketball” was an understatement. For the first time since the Detroit Pistons in 1962, an NBA team scored 50 points in a quarter of a playoff game. The playoffs are supposed to be the best of the best, that’s why this hasn’t happened in 56 years. Tom Thibodeau called the Rockets explosive and he and Towns criticized the team’s energy.
Towns went as far to call their energy on Monday night “flat.” In reality, the issue wasn’t energy. Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler came out of the gate and attacking the rim and glass. We haven’t seen Wiggins wrestle opponents for rebounds very often, so we know it’s serious when he’s that aggressive.
The numbers from the quarter are incredible. Houston made more 3-pointers (nine) in the frame than Minnesota made all-night long (eight). In the third quarter, the Rockets made 14 field goals, which is as many as the Wolves made in the quarter. Finally, the fact that just four Rockets scored in the quarter is remarkable.
The Wolves were in trouble as soon as the second half began. Just like they set the tone for the promising start to the game, they set the tone for their undoing. The Timberwolves missed their first three shot attempts. Towns grabbed a rebound before firing an ill-advised pass to Teague that sailed over half court and right to Chris Paul.
In the first three minutes, the Wolves failed to score, had two turnovers, and committed two fouls. Suddenly, a 1-point deficit was now 12 points. From there, the Rockets were unrelenting and didn’t let up until the buzzer to end the quarter sounded.
Of their 50 third-quarter points, Harden had 22 of them on 7-of-12 shooting. Paul added 15 of his own on 4-of-6 shooting. And Eric Gordon only hit two shots in the frame but made two 3-pointers in the final 28 seconds.
Paul and Co. were unrelenting in picking the Wolves apart. They drew four turnovers and gained nine points off of those alone. Turnovers killed the Wolves in Game 1 and they contributed to this disaster of a quarter.
In Game 4, turnovers came back to haunt them yet again. Yet, the points off of turnovers didn’t necessarily come from steals. Embarrassingly enough for the Wolves, the Rockets had one steal, which means that even their dead-ball turnovers were hurting them.
“Everyone will look at the 50 points we scored in the quarter but it was our defense. We finally started forcing tough shots, we were getting rebounds, and were tough in transition,” said Paul. “You got James [Harden] coming downhill and myself and the way we got the court spaced with shooters is big. That really turned it up.”
“We did it on the defensive end, I thought. We just talked about transition [defense]. I think they had 13 points in the first half,” said D’Antoni. “They were struggling against our half-court defense but we didn’t get back or build a wall and all that stuff. They were getting too many easy buckets and we stressed that at halftime. And I thought in the third quarter our guys did a better job of that, got out, made stops, and of course made shots.”
They were right. The Wolves were able to build their first-half lead in large part because guys like Butler and Wiggins could get to the line at will. When that was taken away, the Timberwolves had no answers. In that now-infamous quarter, they mustered just 20 points.
And because the Wolves were out-rebounded 13-9 in the third, the Rockets were able to get most of their eight fastbreak points off of their 10 defensive boards. While the Wolves may have had one more offensive rebound than the Rockets, they left many more opportunities and were beat on the defensive glass 10-5.
After the game, Tom Thibodeau and Towns had little of substance to say about the quarter. They talked about grit and energy. Towns even mentioned needing “straight grit” at one point.
However, this game wasn’t lost over a lack of grit or energy. The first 20 minutes were physical, with Teague, Butler, and Wiggins barreling through the lane to get a good look at the rim. Derrick Rose also continued to succeed in getting good looks inside.
When the Rockets shifted their focus to avoiding dribble penetration, the Wolves seemingly didn’t know what to do. They struggled on the perimeter, taking unnecessary 3-pointers. Towns, in particular, seemed to be waiting for double teams and hesitant to back down mismatches as a result. That’s not an energy issue as much as it is an overthinking problem. Just because the help defenders had come in the first three games didn’t mean the D’Antoni wasn’t going to mix it up.
After playing the Rockets closely in the first half, the Wolves began the fourth quarter down 31 points. By now, the once packed and raucous Target Center had quieted and begun to empty out. That’s what happens when a team is on the wrong end of a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were in their primes.
Even after their slow start, Harden and the Rockets never lost faith in themselves.
“This entire team, we were confident. We had a good talk yesterday, a good practice. Guys were staying after just to shoot, shoot the basketball and be aggressive” said. Harden. “We came out hot and it kind of carried over. For myself and Chris, obviously, we had the mindset to be aggressive.”
“Make or miss shots, that’s what we do. We shoot the basketball and eventually they’ll start falling.”