Rockets pull away in the third quarter, topple Timberwolves 122-104 to advance to second round

Zach Pereles

Two nights ago, the Houston Rockets scored 50 points in the third quarter, just one point short of the all-time playoff record for points in a quarter.

Wednesday night’s third wasn’t quite as spectacular, but it turned the game on its head nonetheless. The Rockets doubled up the Timberwolves 30-15 in the third period, turning a 59-55 deficit into a 85-74 lead en route to an 122-104 victory. James Harden matched the entire Minnesota team with 15 points of his own in the third quarter and finished with 24 points to go along with 12 assists. Big man Clint Capela had game highs in points (26) and rebounds (14). With the win, the Rockets are into the second round for the second straight year, and they will face the winner of the Utah-Oklahoma City series.

Led by Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague’s combined 25 points, the Timberwolves got off to another good first-half start. Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson each poured in eight points of their own as well. On the other side, Houston’s future Hall-of-Fame backcourt of Harden and Chris Paul combined to go just three for 17 from the field and one for 10 from deep. But even with the stars struggling, Houston’s impressive supporting cast kept them in the game. Capela pick-and-rolled his way to 13 points on just seven shots, and Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon combined for 25 points, including five threes. Still, it looked as if the league’s best team was in for a battle in front of their raucous home crowd at the Toyota Center.

But then the third-quarter onslaught came, and when runs such as those come, the Rockets are essentially impossible to stop. After combining for just seven first-half points, Paul and Harden scored 19 in the third quarter alone. Roughly halfway through the quarter, Harden — and, in turn, the Rockets — took over. The MVP favorite hit a stepback three to give the hosts a 68-66 lead (a lead they would not relinquish) and then on a dunk to force a Minnesota timeout. Out of the timeout, Houston forced a miss, and Harden knocked down a deep straight-away three in transition.

Overall, it was very much a strong opening-round performance from the Rockets. Playing as the No. 1 seed for the first time in franchise history, Houston took care of business with relative ease in three of its four wins despite being without Ryan Anderson for two games and Luc Mbah a Moute for the entire series. And though they struggled at times shooting the ball, the Rockets could rely on their vastly improved defense to keep themselves in games before the offense eventually arrived. While the Rockets will, in all likelihood, need to be better offensively in the second round, that they played their most complete offensive game in the series-clinching game is an encouraging sign.

The Timberwolves, meanwhile, ended a 14-year playoff drought only to see it come to a close after five games. With a young core intact, the Wolves have a bright future — they showed as much in a sometimes-terrific and sometimes-frustrating regular season — but the difference between an experienced championship contender and a young playoff team starting to come into its own was evident throughout the series.

James Harden and P.J. Tucker provided swarming defense Wednesday night. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)
James Harden and P.J. Tucker provided swarming defense Wednesday night. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)