MINNEAPOLIS — James Harden and Chris Paul had enough of the Wolves.
Whether it was the “Harden sucks” chants that rumbled throughout Target Center during the first half, or an unspecified tweet that struck a certain chord, or the shear talent of one of the NBA’s most devastating duos, the Rockets’ backcourt decided enough was enough.
When the third quarter started on Monday night, the game was tight. The Wolves were playing a style of Bully-Ball—crushing the Rockets in the paint and showing what that toughness Tom Thibodeau has consistently grumbled about actually looks like—that seemed to challenge Houston in a way that could positively close the huge stylestic gap in play.
The fans were buzzing from the jump and the building was electric once again, inspiring a feeling of optimism. There was real hope. The score was 50-49 at the break. Maybe the Wolves could actually pull this win out to tie the series at two games apiece before heading back to Houston?
Reality kicked in with the blink of an eye. The Rockets high-powered backcourt, armed with the perfect complementary pieces, decided to crush that hopeful thought almost as fast as it was born.
An unbelievable quarter of play shifted the feeling from ‘maybe they can pull off another upset,’ to ‘this series was fun while it lasted.’ In the third quarter, the Rockets said screw the chants; screw the tweets; screw the hope manifesting itself across the city; screw Wolves in six.
“I think some of you want to check your tweets from halftime,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said with an innocent yet vindictive smile. “I am not sure which one of you tweeted it out. But he is playing pretty good.”
Harden’s tremendous play in Houston’s convincing 119-100 win certainly had his coach feeling confident. An eventual MVP—paired with one marvelous sidekick that most teams can’t match—led the charge in what became quite possibly the most dominating quarter in postseason history. Houston dropped 50 points in the third, as if Wolves fans needed to lose more sleep. Harden scored 22 of his 36 points in the period; Paul added 15 of his 25.
In the process, the Rockets became only the second team to score 50 in a quarter in NBA postseason history. The 30-point advantage (50-20) also matched the largest differential for any single quarter in the playoffs.
The Rockets' 50 3rd-quarter points are the 2nd-most in a quarter in NBA postseason history, behind the Lakers' 51 in 1962 against the Detroit Pistons.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 24, 2018
In the 3rd quarter, Houston shot 61% overall and 69% on 3-pointers. pic.twitter.com/uefyyzJOwg
The Rockets spent 12 minutes of game time playing perfect basketball on both ends of the floor.
A common theme in losses this season popped up again: the Wolves’ halfcourt offense completely stalled out with stagnant sets, little movement, tons of ball watching, and plenty of empty possessions. Houston went into their shell defensively, begging the Wolves to either drive into a packed lane, force-feed Towns, or beat them from deep.
None of it worked.
Houston’s defense also sparked the lopsided, deflating quarter more than many people might want to admit. When the Wolves are left scrambling in transition—unable to set up their halfcourt defense—an avalanche of points from the opposition is typically the outcome.
“We did it on the defensive end I thought,” said D’Antoni.
“Obviously everybody will look at the 50 points that we scored in the quarter, but it was our defense,” said Paul. “I mean we finally started making tough shots, we were getting rebounds, we are tough in transition. You know what I mean? We have James coming downhill, myself, we got the court spaced with shooters. That’s big, so that really turned it up for us.”
Harden was a bit more simple in his explanation.
“We scored 50 points,” he said, as if that’s not an unusual number in one quarter. “I don’t what else to say. Defensively we were active, offensively we let it go. It’s pretty simple.”
If that’s considered simple for Harden and the Rockets, the rest of the NBA should be quivering in fear of what’s set to come later in the playoffs.
Rockets use a 50-point 3rd quarter to beat the Wolves and take a 3-1 series lead.— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 24, 2018
4 STLS pic.twitter.com/bWyLJ6RGac
Karl-Anthony Towns might have finished the night with 22 points and 15 rebounds, but garbage time—when the game had already been decided—pumped up his numbers (9 points and 3 rebounds in the fourth). Jimmy Butler played through injuries in the most admirable way possible, almost never letting the viewer see what he’s battling against. His 19 points on 7-17 shooting (with nine rebounds and five assists) were, however, rendered meaningless with the way the Rockets embarrassed the Wolves’ defense.
Jeff Teague followed up a tremendous performance in Game 3 with a complete dud of a showing (two points, five rebounds, three assists). He was unable to effectively penetrate and live in the lane like he does when he’s at his best. At least Teague has somewhat of a hall pass, given the way he jammed his right pinkie finger in the first quarter. He left the game in immense pain to get it checked out—and taped up in the training room—and was never the same after.
Later in the game, Teague and Paul were jawing at each other in front of the Wolves’ bench, sharing some vulgar words that probably shouldn’t be repeated. The moment ultimately baited Teague into a silly foul, and free throws. It really didn’t matter one bit, but as tempers flared the moment of frustration was representative of the overarching vibe in Wolvesdom; Houston exposed them in every possible way in only one quarter of play.
The idea of Playoff Wiggins also took a painful right-hand hook to the jaw. 14 points on 14 shots, -30, and little else to speak of. Meanwhile, Taj Gibson was a non-factor and Derrick Rose, of all players, was one of the bright spots. He turned back the clock, tallying 17 points (7-11), six rebounds, and four assists off the bench. Tyus Jones was unable to play due to swelling in his knee.
“We stayed with our principles, just tried to make it a little tougher on [Towns],” said Paul. “[We] tried to keep Teague out of the lane as much as he was last game. And then we just wanted to make everything a little bit harder, so contest their shots a little bit harder, push the ball a little bit harder, and when guys get to making shots like step backs, and all that stuff like that, we are pretty tough.”
D’Antoni said his Rockets have been chasing an insane quarter like the 50-point third for two years now.
“We have been talking about it for two years, putting the fifty piece up ... it starts on the other end. It just starts with the intensity and the right spirit. We got enough shooters and things will eventually go in.”
In Game 4, the Rockets locked in and achieved their ridiculous goal. They brought an insanely electric crowd to a screeching halt, almost muting them in shock over the complete dominance.
Houston heard the negative chants and must have read exactly the right tweets at halftime. Then they reminded everyone who the most lethal team in the Association is with one of the best quarters in playoff history.