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Zulgad: Right on Target: Wolves’ fast start snuffed out by Rockets’ stars

MINNEAPOLIS – The Timberwolves won the opening tip and the sellout crowd of 18,978 inside Target Center went crazy.

Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson made layups to put the Wolves up 4-0 and the building got even louder.

James Harden was called for a shot-clock violation and appreciative Wolves fans made so much noise you wondered if the roof was going to come off the place.

And so it went for the first half of Game 4 of this first-round Western Conference playoff series Monday night as the eighth-seeded Wolves trailed the top-seeded Rockets by only one point after 24 minutes and appeared poised to shock the NBA world by heading back to Houston for Game 5 on Wednesday with the series tied at 2-2.

And then the second half began and the Wolves were slapped back into reality by a Rockets team that had been dying far more than living with its bread-and-butter shot, the three-pointer. Harden, who looked nothing like an MVP in missing all seven shots he took in the opening quarter, suddenly could not miss as the Rockets put up 50 points in the third.

The Rockets’ point total in the third marked the second-highest scoring quarter in NBA playoff history, falling one point shy of the 51 that Los Angeles Lakers had in the fourth quarter of a playoff loss to the Detroit Pistons on March 31, 1962.

The enthusiasm displayed in the first half was drained with each three-pointer made by the Rockets. By the end of that 12 minutes, any hope of the Wolves getting two at home was long gone.  Final score: Rockets 119, Timberwolves 100. Status of the series: Houston 3, Wolves 1.

Harden, who had 44 points in Houston’s win in Game 1, had gone only 4-of-14 from the field in the first half, including 2-of-7 on three-pointers, for 12 points. In the third quarter, he knocked down 7-of-10 overall and 3-of-4 from long range for 22 points en route to finishing with a game-high 36 points.

“I think some of you might want to check your tweets (from) halftime,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antonio said. “I don’t know what you all tweeted out but he’s playing pretty good.”

Harden wasn’t the only Rockets star who got hot in the third. Chris Paul had made only 4-of-9 from the field and missed both three-pointers in scoring eight points in the first half. He went 4-for-6, including 3-for-3 on threes, in scoring 15 in the third en route to a 25-point effort.

The Wolves, who made 15 three-pointers in Game 3, were held to eight on 22 attempts Monday. The Rockets finished 16-of-43, which was only one more than they made in Game 3. The difference was Houston started out 7-of-25 (28 percent) in the first half before making 9-of-18 in the final two quarters.

This success caused fans to spend the majority of the fourth quarter filing out of Target Center.

“We’ll take a look at the film, we’ll meet, walk-through, go over where we made our mistakes, learn,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “That’s the most important thing. The disappointment of the loss, but to learn from it. It’s the first team to four (wins). We have to respond.”

This is what you would expect the Wolves to say as they prepare for Wednesday’s game, but it certainly appears their first postseason appearance in 14 years will come to a conclusion in Houston.

“It is disappointing that we didn’t give our fans what they wanted to see and what we wanted to see,” said Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, who finished with a team-leading 22 points and 15 rebounds and provided a souvenir for a fan when he disgustedly hurled his mouth guard into the stands in the fourth quarter. “They brought the energy tonight. We didn’t bring as much energy as we needed too to come out with this one. It’s not our fans fault, it’s our fault. We have to come back ready to play down in Houston.”

Say this for the Wolves and Wild fan bases: They always will have the excitement of Game 3 of the first round. That was the game in which the Wild beat Winnipeg, 6-2, to capture their only victory in a first-round series loss and that’s likely going to be the case with the Wolves, who surprised the Rockets in a 121-105 victory on Saturday night at Target Center.

“No, absolutely not,” Towns said when asked if the Wolves’ confidence was shaken. “We’ve already moved on, got to get ready for the next game. Obviously, we’re disappointed with the result tonight but we don’t have any time to put our heads down and look for excuses. We’ve got to move onto the next game and make sure we fix our mistakes and be ready for Houston.”

The Wild said the same types of things after a 2-0 loss in Game 4 at home. Three nights later, they lost 5-0 to the Jets to put an end to their season. The Wolves should brace for a similar fate on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.


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