After manhandling the NBA's best regular-season team in Game 3, which was the first home playoff game in Minneapolis in 14 years, the Wolves still seemed to have figured out the recipe to contain one of the best offenses in NBA history. They kept things physical. They forced the Rockets into contested shots. They did what they did in Game 3.
And most impressively, they held James Harden, the league's presumptive MVP and most unstoppable offensive force, to zero made field goals. Harden was missing, and missing badly. Andrew Wiggins -- Andrew Wiggins! -- was playing lockdown defense. His first seven shots, Harden missed every one. Going back to the beginning of Game 2, Harden had made only 11 of 46 shots, his worst shooting stretch of the entire season.
Halfway through the second quarter, Harden made his first shot, a nine-foot J from just inside the foul line that brought the Rockets to within two of the Timberwolves. Thirty-six seconds later, Harden hit his first 3-pointer. Twenty-nine seconds after that, he hit his second triple. When the horn sounded for halftime, the Rockets were up 50-49. Harden now had 11 points on 4 of 14 shooting -- far from an efficient, Harden-esque performance, but certainly better than when he got shut down in Game 2.
Then came the third quarter.
Maybe it was the halftime performance by The Amazing Sladek ("America's oldest daredevil acrobatic handbalancer," no joke). Maybe it was that, after a few games when the shots weren't falling for the Rockets, the shots finally began to fall. Or maybe it was that Harden and the Rockets decided to stop fooling around with this lesser team.
Whatever it was, the Rockets turned on the afterburners. After scoring 50 points in the first half, the Rockets scored 50 points in the third quarter. Those 50 points were one shy of an NBA postseason record for most points in a quarter (March 31, 1962, when the Los Angeles Lakers dropped 51 on the Detroit Pistons, in case you were wondering). Three minutes into the third quarter, Harden had seven more points, Chris Paul had six more points, and the Timberwolves only had two more points. The Wolves called a timeout, now down 12. That didn't help; two minutes and 48 seconds (and 10 Harden points) later, the Rockets were up 23. By the end of the quarter, a one-point Rockets lead had stretched over 12 minutes to a 31-point Rockets lead. Harden scored 22 points in those 12 minutes; of the Rockets 50 points, 37 came from Harden and Paul. As a team the Rockets shot 61 percent in that third quarter, and made nine threes, en route to a Game 4 victory that wasn't nearly as close as the 119-100 final score indicated.
The Rockets exploded.
Let us refer to the simple wisdom of Harden to break down exactly what happened in that historic third quarter: "We scored 50 points," Harden shrugged. "Defensively we were active, and offensively we got it going. It's pretty simple."
What felt like a real, competitive first-round playoff series between a one-seed and an eight-seed at halftime felt like a soon-to-be gentleman's sweep by the end of the third quarter.
And we should not be, in the least bit, surprised.
This is why the Rockets were the NBA's best team during the regular season, and why they should be considered, by far, the greatest threat to the Golden State Warriors' streak of NBA dominance.
There's not a team in the league that can score points in bunches like these Rockets. (No, not even the Warriors, and not even when the Warriors have a healthy Steph Curry.) Yes, I understand that Harden and Paul have played less than one full season together, and that each have playoff histories that leave plenty to be desired, but there's a chance -- a non-zero chance -- that 30 years from now we might be talking about the Harden-Paul duo as the best NBA backcourt of all time. And the pieces around them are perfect. No team in NBA history launched as many 3-point attempts as the Rockets did this season, averaging more than 42 a game. The Rockets' first 11 points were scored not by Harden nor Paul but by Trevor Ariza (3 of 3 from deep, plus two free throws). Eric Gordon scored 18 points on 4 of 10 3-point shooting on Monday night. They may not always make their 3s -- they certainly didn't during the first three games of this series -- but they take so damn many of them that eventually they are bound to fall.
And fall they did in the third quarter on Monday night, which was the 12 minutes of basketball that, for all intents and purposes, ended this series.
"They just made some tough shots," Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. "There's a reason they are the team they are. We had to keep the edge we had in the first half for 48 minutes. We didn't do that tonight."
Perhaps it's silly to count the Timberwolves out when there is still basketball to be played. I don't think so. The Rockets looked unstoppable in the third quarter, and they're taking that mentality back home, and they're going to win, and then they'll be primed to face either the Utah Jazz or the Oklahoma City Thunder. I hope it's the Jazz; a matchup of the best offense in the NBA against the best defense in the NBA (when healthy, which the Jazz are) ought to make one helluva series.
For a while -- for three-and-a-half games, to be exact -- this series seemed up in the air. And then, poof, it was over.
We saw the best the Rockets have to offer in that third quarter: Aggressive defense that begat fast-paced offense. And finally, the shots started to fall for them.
And if we're going to see some version of that consistently over the next eight weeks, then we'll soon be crowning the Rockets as the 2017-18 NBA champions.