After six mostly meandering periods at the Target Center in which the Rockets (65-17) suffered a double-digit loss in Game 3 on Saturday and held a one-point lead at halftime of Game 4 on Monday night, Houston finally unleashed the full-octane offense that powered them to the league's best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
They hung a 50 on the Timberwolves in the third period en route to a 119-100 victory that gave Houston a commanding 3-1 series lead. James Harden scored 15 of his 36 points in a 20-5 tear over the first 4:59 of the third quarter to break open the game and finished with 22 in that quarter. Chris Paul added 15 of his 25 in that quarter, when he hit all three of his 3-pointers.
It was just the second time in NBA playoff history a team scored 50 points in a quarter, with the Rockets finishing one point shy of the record established by the 1962 Los Angeles Lakers, who scored 51 in the fourth quarter of a 132-125 loss to the Detroit Pistons with a team led by Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. The 30-point differential in the quarter also tied an NBA postseason record.
Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds while Jimmy Butler added 19 and nine for Minnesota, whose defense finally failed on the perimeter after holding Houston to 31.5 percent shooting from 3-point range in the first three games. The Rockets hit 16 of 42 from deep and now have hit 57 treys to Minnesota's 36 in this series.
If the Timberwolves can snap a 13-game overall losing streak in Houston and beat the Rockets on the road for the first time since a 111-98 victory February 17, 2012, the series will return to the Target Center for Game 6 on Friday night.
Three keys to the game
A nifty fifty for Houston... - Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni has long set a 50-point quarter as a target for his team, and it could not have come at a more opportune time as the Timberwolves were feeding off their home crowd and trying to make something of their first playoff appearance in 14 years.
"It was a good time to do it. We've been talking about it for two years, putting the 50-piece up," D'Antoni told The Associated Press. "And that starts with the intensity and the right spirit and everything."
And 12 minutes to forget for Minnesota ... - Harden hit seven of ten shots in that third quarter, and the Rockets hit nine of 13 overall from 3-point range in a barrage that never didn't end until Eric Gordon's 28-foot runner at the horn gave the Rockets a 100-69 advantage after 36 minutes. Eleven of those 13 3-pointers were considered "wide open" by NBA.com standards, and the Rockets hit eight of those.
“We gave (Harden) a steady dose of layups and when he saw some layups going in, his three-pointers started coming,” Wolves guard Jeff Teague told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “You get a couple of easy buckets, the rim opens up for you.”
Why you play for home-court advantage - After getting the split at Minnesota that gives them two chances to close out the Timberwolves at home and three overall, the Rockets have to feel good about making quick work of this in Game 5. They have averaged 117.0 points during their 12-game winning streak at home over Minnesota and made 181 3-pointers in those victories while shooting 36.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Matchup to watch
Gs Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler vs Gs James Harden and Chris Paul - It is not a coincidence that the only game the Timberwolves have won in this series is when Butler and Teague outscored their Rockets counterparts in Game 3. Harden and Paul racked up a 61-21 advantage in Tuesday night's win as Teague endured a one-for-seven shooting night and finished with two points.
Obviously, that cannot happen again for Minnesota to extend this series, but if the Wolves can keep Harden and Paul under a combined 45 points, they may have a puncher's chance if their offense clicks.
Minnesota Timberwolves projected starting lineup
PG - Jeff Teague | SG - Jimmy Butler | C - Karl-Anthony Towns | SF - Andrew Wiggins | PF - Taj Gibson
Houston Rockets projected starting lineup
PG - Chris Paul | SG - James Harden | C - Clint Capela | SF - Trevor Ariza | PF - P. J. Tucker
While Butler would never use his knee injury as an excuse, one has to wonder how close to 100 percent he is as he tries to keep the Timberwolves competitive. The All-Star guard has averaged 17.8 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45.3 percent overall and made eight of 16 from 3-point range.
Towns needs to carry his offensive game from Minnesota back to Houston after totaling 40 points in Games 3 and 4 while recording double-doubles in both contests. He has averaged 13.3 points and 13.3 rebounds but shot only 41.3 percent, well off his season mark of 54.5 percent.
Including his 44-point effort in Game 2, Harden has three 40-point games and four 30-point games in his last 11 at home. He has averaged 31.0 points, 7.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds in that stretch along with 2.6 steals per game.
Clint Capela's 20 offensive rebounds and 56 total rebounds were NBA-playoff highs through games entering Tuesday night. He has two three double-doubles in this series while playing Towns to a near-standstill with the same number of points and three more rebounds while outshooting him by converting at a 60.5 percent clip.
The Rockets are 12-point favorites to close out the series, with the line moving one-half point in their favor since its open as they look to cover for the seventh time in the last nine meetings between the teams. They are also trying to extend a trend in which the favorites have covered in six of the previous eight matchups.
Houston improved to 2-5 against the spread in their last seven versus Northwest Division teams, 2-6 in their last eight overall and 2-8 in ther last ten against conference rivals. While Minnesota are 6-2 versus the number in their last eight overall and last eight against Western Conference opponents, they dropped to 3-8 against the spread in their last 11 versus Southwest Division squads.
The over/under has slipped 2.5 points to 216.5, and the over narrowly improved to 16-5 in the last 21 meetings between the teams after hitting by two points in Game 4. The over is also 13-5 in Minnesota's last 18 games against teams above .500 but 2-5 in their last seven against Southwest Division teams.
The under is 26-8 in Houston's last 34 games against Western Conference teams and 4-2 in their last six versus Northwest Division opponents.
While Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau is not entirely inaccurate in saying his team is facing elimination because his team has played two bad quarters in this series; the other being the 37-17 second quarter that contributed to Minnesota's 102-82 loss in Game 2, it also obscures the fact of just how much his team has had to scratch and claw just to stay even in the 14 other quarters.
Minnesota have given themselves a chance to win two of these four games as much as Houston shot themselves out of taking a chance to win those two games, and each team has one victory. That is how it goes.
If the Wolves are to have any chance to bring this series back to Minnesota, Towns will have to score more than the 13 combined points he had in Games 1 and 2. In fact, 13 points in each half might not even be enough given how well Capela has played him to a near-standstill.
Minnesota not only needs at least five players to score in double figures, those five scorers have to get at least 15 points. Houston's high scorers have reached 44, 29, 27 and 36 points, which essentially negates the fourth and fifth-highest scorers. And all this doesn't take into consideration how Minnesota is going to stop Houston's perimeter game now that it finally found a weakness.
It has been a good season for the Timberwolves, who are slightly ahead of schedule by making the postseason this spring. This was a good lesson and there were moments they were the better team. The problem is Houston have been the better team for stretches and games, and that is why the Rockets are moving on after a 118-102 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on TNT and nationally in Canada on TSN. It will be televised locally on Fox Sports North and AT&T SportsNet - Southwest. Tip-off time is 9:30 pm EDT.
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