It took game four of the series between the Houston Rockets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. It took three wins from the Rockets. It took a 44-point performance from James Harden. It took a 50-point third quarter. But after four games and a 3-1 series lead for Houston, the Rockets are coming into contender form, which has since been cemented in after a series clinching 122-104 win in game five.
Headed into the playoffs, the 65-win Rockets still left something to prove, especially with the postseason reputation of their two stars. The stink on the Rockets is still fresh after the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs stunned H-Town with a series win to advance to the conference finals.
Not quite as fresh, but still plenty relevant, Chris Paul has yet to put any postseason sizzle to his name, having never made it out of the second round of the playoffs (despite some of the star-studded L.A. Clippers teams he associated with).
Despite the fireworks attempting more threes through a season than twos, or the excitement of bringing Paul to the lone star state, or the tantalizing matchup that is the Timberwolves and their porous play from behind the arc – there was still doubt around the Rockets.
It was a doubt that lingered in game one, as the Timberwolves hung around the Rockets, watching Harden drop the hammer in the form of 44 points but manage to stay within three points.
A doubt that seemed perfectly logical as Paul made ill-advised inbounds pass that gave the ball back to Minnesota, for one last attempt for their leader, Jimmy Butler, to force overtime. A team that won 65 games, most in the NBA, needed every drop of Harden’s cooking to slip past a quiet night from the rest of the Houston club.
But then we saw something from a team led by Harden/Paul that we have not seen in their postseason careers. The Rockets have shown an ability to win outside of Harden’s greatness.
In game two, Harden had a quiet night, while Paul showed off acrobatics to accomplish the victory in route to a 27-point game.
Game four represented the closest image to the complete Rockets picture thus far, as Trevor Ariza showed up early (15 points) for the first time to compensate for a slow start from the Harden/Paul duo. Ariza gave way to the star-studded combo destroying the Timberwolves in the second and third quarters. All the while Clint Capela had an under the radar double-double and Eric Gordon made his first appearance in the form of a solid close out, finishing with 18 points.
In game five, Capela lead the scoring with 26 points (and 15 rebounds) while Harden put the Rockets back in game they trailed at half with 15 of his 24 points coming in the third quarter. P.J. Tucker had his first double-digit night of the series (15 points) and Gordon showed up for the second consecutive game off the bench, posting 19 points.
This all seems fairly unflattering of the Timberwolves, already suffering a pair of blowout losses while they sit on the cusp of being ushered out of the postseason in five games.
As Houston crushed Minnesota’s season under the weight of 50 3rd quarter points, it was painfully obvious the separation between the top of the Western Conference playoffs and the bottom. They are woefully outmatched by the 3-point shooting of the Rockets, the isolation that lives on the outside and the greatness of veterans against the inexperience of playoff virgins.
The silver lining- Minnesota made the playoffs, the Derrick Rose renaissance was a pleasant surprise and the team is young. A team that shot 36 percent from three has been held to 32 percent by a Minnesota squad which struggles to defend the perimeter.
The 4-1 gentlemen’s sweep was the best that could have been hoped for by Timberwolves faithful. On the flip side, the Rockets winning games with pieces of their team shows they have plenty of ceiling yet to reach while revving up at the right time.
Photo: Houston Rockets’ James Harden, left, drives around Minnesota Timberwolves’ Taj Gibson during the second half of Game 3 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Minneapolis. The Timberwolves won 121-105. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)