The Rockets’ ethos typically makes watching them feel like a chore. There’s no flash like Westbrook gives the Thunder, no unicorns like the ones on the Bucks or Sixers, no ball movement of the kind that the Warriors champion, and no superhuman like LeBron. They thrive on a blunt-force-like efficiency that isn’t universally palatable. But sometimes their efficiency can be so great that it overcomes their stylistic choices and forces us all to appreciate their greatness.
That’s how it felt to watch James Harden (and to an extent, Chris Paul) put an end to what had been a close game with a 50-point third quarter, ending any hope the Wolves had engineered in the first half of Monday’s Game 4. It was as if Harden had been in a purposeful lull, just getting by and letting Minnesota have its fun before awakening from his siesta to end the Timberpups’ fiesta. Houston won, 119-100, and took control of the series, likely for good.
After squeaking out a one-point lead at the half, the Rockets came back from the locker room and let the presumptive MVP shoot himself into rhythm, making up for a modest (by Harden’s standards) 12-point first half and an abysmal 0-for-7 first-quarter performance.
“Rhythm” has been a buzzword for the Rockets as of late. Their superior talent got them over the hump in Houston, but a road loss in Game 3 shed light on their recent inconsistency.
“I’d say [the past] couple months we haven’t played really well,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said on Sunday before the team’s practice. “That’s why I was worried the whole time about resting guys, doing this, getting out of rhythm. [People say], ‘It doesn’t really mean a whole lot.’ Ehhhh, it does.”
“It’s been a long time,” Harden said about the last time the team had been firing on all offensive cylinders. “We’ve just got to get a rhythm. It’s not necessarily just me and Chris. We’re good enough to get enough to get our shot going and get our rhythm going at any point in any game.”
For two quarters on Monday, the troubling trend continued. Save for Trevor Ariza’s hot start, the Rockets were inconsistent. They could muster only 50 points in the half. This was an ugly game, with Minnesota dragging Houston into the mud for a fight, and the Rockets were content to let them. Then, the third quarter happened.
Chris Paul had said the Rockets needed to engage their offense by tightening up their defense. Paul stole a pass from Karl-Anthony Towns near the beginning of the quarter and put the ball in Harden’s hands. He blew by Towns and lofted a layup over Taj Gibson. Paul came back on the following possession after a missed Wolves shot and drained a 3. Another missed Minny shot, this one from Andrew Wiggins, led to a maddening/classic Harden drawn-foul on a 3-point shot. He has been breaking opposing teams’ backs with that all season long. Gibson took the bait, and Harden drained all three free throws.
The Wolves’ first field goal of the quarter didn’t come until the 8:49 mark. When they finally scored, Harden responded with a stepback jumper. Wolves boss Tom Thibodeau finally called a timeout. It didn’t work. Harden returned by making a six-foot runner and a 24-footer for three more. All while being guarded by Jimmy Butler. The quarter wasn’t even halfway over and the Rockets already led 68-54. Harden added another layup, taking it right into Towns’s front yard and bodying him out of it as if Towns were just a misplaced piece of lawn furniture.
The lead had multiplied from one to 16 in five minutes. With seven minutes left in the quarter, Harden and Paul had scored 32 of the team’s previous 35 points. And they weren’t done. Harden added two more free throws and two more 3s, while Paul sprinkled in some free throws in between. And as if he hadn’t done enough, Harden finished his unreal 22-point, nine-minute stretch in the quarter by blocking one of Jeff Teague’s 3s.
The 50-point quarter culminated in a 31-point lead. For the Rockets, it was an extreme example of what D’Antoni, Harden, and Paul had been looking for all series sandwiched into a 12-minute stretch. For the Wolves, the avalanche came at the worst possible time—in their own gym, with a chance to make the series truly interesting. Houston had effectively ended it like only they could—with a barrage of 3s and foul shots. Only once more in NBA history has a team scored 50 points in a single playoff quarter: The Lakers scored 51 against the Pistons in a fourth quarter during the 1962 playoffs.
Harden finished with 36 points in 33 minutes. The Rockets finished shooting 37.2 percent from beyond the arc, where they had been shooting 28 percent at halftime.
“We hit the switch … the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the start of the playoffs,” Harden said postgame. If “the switch” means unleashing the second-highest-scoring quarter in playoff history, then it doesn’t matter whether we like watching it or not, it’s going to work.