With just over three minutes to go in the third quarter, the Timberwolves were up seven, but James Harden had Taj Gibson on an isolation near the Timberwolves bench. As the sellout crowd began to recognize what was happening, it got louder.
And then it got louder.
Perfect non-fouling defense proceeded; Harden searched for the foul, failed to do so, and threw up an airball. The crowd went nuts, and Gibson put his hands up in the air asking the crowd to muster even more noise.
A seven-point lead against the Houston Rockets in the third quarter is far from a gimme — in fact, most probably assumed the Rockets would eventually go on a patented 3-point barrage and win the game. It would have been as on-brand anything else the Rockets have accomplished this year.
Instead, that moment became the momentum-booster they needed.[videopress bTAUQGzO]
From that play on, the Timberwolves would go on to build a double-digit lead that didn’t vanish. Their 121-105 win over the Houston Rockets not only puts them back into competition, but also the forces the series back to Houston for at least one more game.
“You can’t have a lull, you can’t have a letdown, you have to play for 48 minutes,” Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “I thought our guys did a great job defensively – they were very good and offensively – just trusting each other and making plays.”
For whatever questions there might have been about the fun of a four-game beatdown, Saturday’s win gives the Timberwolves new life, and the series new meaning.
It wasn’t just that the Timberwolves won the game — even with the victory, they still remain down in the series and heavy underdogs for every game going forward. But the individual pieces and successes they got in the process can comfortably lead to a belief that Game 4 could be as exciting as Game 3.
The most important uptick in success came from the team’s best player. After a pair of silent outputs in Houston, Jimmy Butler came out attacking immediately in the first quarter. Eleven of his 28 points came in that opening quarter. Even after an ankle injury at the end of the first half, Butler kept at it and didn’t look fazed when he came out for the second.
“I can tell you for the last couple of days that I got tired of my
teammates telling me to be more aggressive,” Butler joked. “I think that I took it upon myself to do just that.”
He continued his solid defense on James Harden — he had 29 points, but on 9-of-21 shooting — and hit some huge shots late that helped put the game away for good.
The first quarter was the lone bright spot for the Timberwolves in Game 2, and Andrew Wiggins had a big part in that. And again on Saturday, Wiggins brought his aggression offensively.
Yes, he filled out the stat sheet — 20 points on 11 shots, five rebounds and five assists — but he also kept up a strong activity throughout the game that sparked an energy into the entire team. Two of his five rebounds were on the offensive glass. The play that got the fans going the most, though, was a block on Eric Gordon that he had at the end of the third quarter.[videopress Ely6IwvO]
Wiggins’ improved defense was a topic of conversation towards the end of the regular season. Through three games in the playoffs, it’s been one of the more consistent positive aspects of the Wolves as a collective unit.
“I’m just trying to stay aggressive. Trying to do anything I can do to help the team win, really,” Wiggins said. “Try to get after it defensively.”
Thibodeau has noticed the improvement as well, though he is not surprised.
“He played an all-around game,” he said. “The rebounding was good and the playmaking — he had five assists. He’s trusting the pass, he’s making the right read on the double team. I thought that it became contagious with everyone.”
Thibodeau also talked about the need for the entire team to step up in order to beat a team like the Rockets. To that point, Karl-Anthony Towns had yet to string anything together.
On Saturday, it took Towns until the second quarter, but a nifty entry pass from Jeff Teague got the big man going for the first time in this series.[videopress 8Qabo08m]
But even the second quarter was a slow one for Towns. After attempting zero shots in the first quarter, he went 2-for-5 in the second — but in the second half, he managed 12 points on eight shots and five free throw attempts. He’s still hasn’t fully figured out Clint Capela, but he has learned that he needs to go a bit higher than normal to avoid a blocked shot.
To this point, Towns has gotten his shot blocked by Capela just once in the playoffs, but his high contest has caused problems throughout the series when they’ve gone 1-on-1. Once Towns was able to evade the quick double teams brought on early in the game, he was able to settle down and look for his shot more properly.
“I think it is a sense of patience,” Towns said. “In the first quarter, I don’t think I shot a shot. Just letting the game come to me and not trying to rush and not trying to find shots and just let the shots find me.”
Teague was often the guy that gave him those looks, and once the first half hit, the veteran was looking for shots of his own. After two games of last-second chucks after offensive breakdowns, Teague was clearly excited to get out and play a more controlled brand of basketball. He shot 7-of-9 for 17 of his 23 points in the second half and hit both of his 3s.
Between him, Butler and Derrick Rose — who finished with 17 energy-building points on 16 shots — the Wolves had very clear and obvious playoff experience on the floor down the stretch, and it’s how the Wolves lead got as big as 19 points.
The win came from veteran experience, but also a ridiculous shooting night — they shot 15-of-27 from deep, and every player that attempted a 3 (that played at least nine minutes) made one. The Wolves got hot, and it came at the perfect time.
The fact that Towns and Wiggins had their best games was exactly what the team needed, and exactly what Thibodeau was looking for.
Meanwhile, Gibson only had two points on 1-of-4 shooting. But his defensive play on James Harden in the third quarter gave the Timberwolves life. When they came back from Houston, it was unclear how much life they have left.
With Game 4 on Monday, they’ll have a chance to tie the series and force a Game 6 back in Minnesota. And while Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni seemed prepared to make adjustments for Monday, the Wolves have a newfound energy. They now know that the Rockets can be beaten by the rotations Thibodeau deploys.
Even so, winning another game against a now-angry Rockets team will be difficult. They went on three losing streaks of at least two games — and one of five — but this is the postseason.
The Rockets are sure to bring it, and them at their best is nearly impossible to beat — even when the Timberwolves play as well as they do.
The win makes the series more interesting, but it will take more for the word “winnable” to be worth mentioning. For now, Wolves fans should celebrate the fun upset that took place at the Target Center on Saturday.
But the work starts all over again on Monday.
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