• Following a Game 3 loss and a sleepy first half in Game 4, James Harden powered Houston to a ridiculous 50-point third quarter to help claim a 3-1 lead over the Wolves.
By Rohan Nadkarni
April 23, 2018

The Rockets’ struggles against the Timberwolves through the first three games of their first-round series never quite made sense. Houston’s offense suffered a precipitous drop, with no obvious culprit. James Harden was shooting inefficiently, despite a leaky Minnesota defense that wasn’t exactly peppering him with novel coverages. Pace wasn’t a huge factor either, as the Rockets were playing only two possessions slower than they were during the regular season. Then, what looked like a competitive series flipped dramatically Monday, as the Rockets took a (old-time sportscaster voice) commanding 3–1 lead over the Wolves with a 119–100 win. Houston scored a whopping 50 points in a defining third quarter, with Harden scoring 22 by himself—the most points in a playoff quarter since Stephen Curry in 2013.

Harden looked like he would be facing another round of postseason criticism after the way he started the game. (Uh, certain SI writers were guilty of getting jokes off themselves.) The MVP favorite began the night shooting 0-of-7, but he quickly regained form, finishing with 36 points while connecting on 12-of-26 shots from the field. Starting in the second quarter and then reaching his high–water mark in the third, Harden began to abuse the Wolves’ defense the same way he torched everyone during the regular season. His stepback three was particularly lethal, while Harden also showed off his strength with rugged forays into the paint.

David Sherman

The performance was good enough to overcome the ongoing Roseassaince. Derrick Rose, discarded by the Cavaliers and by most rational thinkers, put together a shockingly good performance in Game 4, scoring 17 points, though most of his damage came in the first half. Minnesota simply didn’t—and doesn’t—have the horses on either side of the court to keep up with Houston. Tom Thibodeau found some success with a smaller, three-guard lineup in the first half. But playing Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Rose together is tenuous at best, and hardly a sound long-term strategy in containing the Rockets.

As Houston got hot in the second half—Chris Paul also played a significant role in the fun—the Wolves’ offense devolved. Karl-Anthony Towns couldn’t capitalize on mismatches, Teague tried to do too much, and Jimmy Butler, perhaps tired from chasing Harden on the other end, couldn’t take control. The Rockets basically reached peak Rockets during that third quarter, with Harden and Paul dictating the action, and the Minny defense scrambling to keep up as Houston overwhelmed them with sharpshooting and smart decision-making.

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Though Harden has had a couple rough shooting nights, it may make sense for Mike D’Antoni to give him even more control of the offense moving forward. Entering Monday’s game, Harden was producing 1.52 points per possession in isolation situations, a small-sample-size-but-absurd improvement on his 1.22 iso points per possession during the regular season. However, before Monday, Harden’s frequency of isolations had dropped significantly against the Wolves. It was no surprise to see Harden have a big night when he was given free reign to do what he wanted.

More than anything, as this series continues and the number of possessions increase, what’s being proven is that the Rockets are the better team. This was already true before the playoffs—we had 82 games of proof—and the Wolves somehow turning into a competent defensive unit always made less sense than Houston (and Harden) finding its offensive identity.

Game 5, in Houston, is Wednesday.

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