MINNEAPOLIS — Though James Harden and most of the Houston Rockets were misfiring throughout the first half, their confidence never wavered.
In the third quarter, those sharpshooters sure came to life.
Harden had 22 of the team’s near-record 50 points in the third, launching the Rockets past the Minnesota Timberwolves 119-100 on Monday night to take a 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.
“We had the mentality to be aggressive, make or missed shots,” said Harden, who went 7 for 10 in the third quarter and finished with 36 points. “That’s what we do. We shoot the basketball, and eventually they’ll start falling.”
Chris Paul scored 15 of his 25 points in the near-record third for the Rockets, who still had a 50-49 halftime edge despite their rough start. With those torrid 12 minutes, they built a 31-point lead and were up 104-69 about a minute into the fourth. The only team in the history of the NBA playoffs with more points in one quarter was the Los Angeles Lakers, who scored 51 points in the fourth on March 31, 1962, in a loss to the Detroit Pistons.
“It was a good time to do it. We’ve been talking about it for two years, putting the 50-piece up,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “And that starts with the intensity and the right spirit and everything.”
Clint Capela added 14 points and 17 rebounds, Eric Gordon finally got going with 18 points off the bench and the Rockets left the Wolves wondering what hit them after 3 1/2 games of decent defense against one of the league’s most dangerous offensive teams. The Rockets scored on 11 straight possessions after an opening stop by the Wolves, and Harden alone scored 17 of their first 20 points.
“I’ve got to watch it again,” Paul said. “We just, I don’t know, got hot.”
Wolves star Jimmy Butler, on the other hand, began forcing off-balance shots. Teague and Paul, the two former Wake Forest point guards, engaged in some intense trash talk. Paul baited Teague into a pushing foul for a pair of add-to-the-pile free throws. Gordon tacked on another 3-pointer at the buzzer for the 100-69 lead.
“I think we came out a little flatter than last game. We didn’t come out right away with that straight grit in the third quarter,” said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds for the Timberwolves.
Minnesota missed 14 of 21 shots, producing several panicked possessions over the third. Perhaps that’s because they were so rattled by how suddenly and quickly the Rockets were scoring.
“We came out lackadaisical on both ends of the floor,” Butler said. “We didn’t take anything away from them. They got whatever shot that they wanted.”
The Timberwolves rebounded from their two defeats on the road by matching the Rockets with 15 makes from 3-point range in Game 3. They wisely took another tack for Game 4, attacking the basket in the first half with relentless abandon and plenty of success.
Derrick Rose, who finished with 17 points and six rebounds, was the catalyst off the bench with multiple muscle-his-way-in layups on both fast breaks and in the half court. Starting point guard Jeff Teague, meanwhile, had only two points on 1-for-7 shooting while fighting through dislocated right pinky finger.
The Wolves were in front by as much a 36-29, but with as poorly as the Rockets were shooting they badly needed a larger lead than that. They went 21 for 44 from the field (47.7 percent) in the first half, but with all the layups and putbacks in the mix they easily could have made more.
Trevor Ariza made the first three 3-pointers attempted by the Rockets, who then missed on 13 of their next 14 tries from behind the arc. Harden didn’t make a basket until 5:57 remained in the second quarter, when his 10-foot floater fell in to cut Minnesota’s lead to 39-37. He swished one of his signature step-back 3-pointers on the next possession, and Houston was right back in front to sow the seeds for the staggering third quarter.
“Once we get going, it’s hard to stop us,” Capela said.
The last time the Timberwolves were in the first round of the playoffs in 2004, their opponent was Denver and Nene was a 21-year-old starter for the Nuggets. This is his 16th season in the NBA, the second with the Rockets.
Rockets: Ariza finished with 15 points, after missing his last eight 3-pointers. … Harden is averaging 30.3 points in the series. He’s 38 for 91 from the floor (41.8 percent). … Capela is leading the league in the playoffs in rebounding, averaging 14 per game.
Timberwolves: Backup point guard Tyus Jones was available on an emergency-only basis because of a sore right knee. Rose played 33 minutes. … Butler (19 points) and Andrew Wiggins (14 points) combined to shoot 12 for 31 from the floor.
The series shifts back south to Houston for Game 5 on Wednesday night.