The 17th sellout crowd this season showed up at Target Center Saturday night to celebrate the first NBA playoff game there since 2004.
All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves showed up, too, in a 121-105 victory.
By winning convincingly, the Wolves drew within 2-1 in a first-round, best-of-seven series that on Saturday delighted a hometown audience and inspired its members to chant “Wolves in six” as the game’s final minutes ticked away.
Game 4 is Monday at Target Center.
“They’re such a great team, you have to play like that against them,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You can’t have a lull, can’t have a letdown.”
“Like that” meant playing like a desperate team on the verge of elimination, which the Wolves would have been if they hadn’t outscored the Rockets 37-16 to end the third quarter and begin the fourth.
The Wolves hadn’t played a playoff game at Target Center since Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference finals.
On Saturday, they finally brought the playoffs back home and swiped a chapter from the Rockets’ unique playbook as well, matching three-point shot for three-point shot.
Each team made 15 three-pointers — but the Wolves attempted 14 fewer. And Houston star Chris Paul fouled out with just under 3½ minutes left, much to the satisfaction of a loud crowd announced at 18,978.
“The fans were absolutely insane,” Towns said. “When you have fan support like that behind you, anything’s possible.”
Anything apparently includes beating the Rockets for the first time in seven tries this season.
Trailing 61-59 in the third quarter, the Wolves rallied and led 96-77 with about 10 minutes left. Butler was aggressive early, Towns later and Teague throughout as he played like he preached when he said Friday his team must play with more freedom and more pace.
“When he plays like that, we’re a different team,” Thibodeau said after Teague had 23 points and eight assists.
Teague, Butler and Andrew Wiggins combined for 18 of the Wolves’ 29 assists after Thibodeau preached “trust the pass” against a Houston defense that doubled- and triple-teamed his best players in the series’ first two games.
Butler took just six shots in Wednesday’s lopsided Game 2 loss at Houston, and Towns scored just 13 points combined in the series’ first two games.
Both players stepped forth with their season on the line. They did so while their team continued to hold the Rockets — the NBA’s second-highest scoring team — to 105 points or fewer this series.
Butler delivered a 28-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance that was charged from the start.
“I can tell you the last couple of days that I got tired of my teammates telling me to be more aggressive,” Butler said. “I took it upon myself to do just that. They are used to me being aggressive the past seven months, so don’t switch it up now. I did that. I did my job.”
Towns finished with a typical double-double with 18 points and 16 rebounds, but perhaps that wasn’t so typical after he struggled to find himself in Houston. He did so with what he called a “sense of patience.”
“The first quarter, I don’t think I shot one shot,” he said. “I just let the game come to me naturally, not trying to rush and try to find shots, just letting the shots find me.”
The Wolves scored 121 points after they had just 82 in Game 2 in Houston.
Paul gave the Wolves credit for scoring just about every which way, and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni was asked if he was disappointed.
“Hey guys, it’s a playoff series,” D’Antoni said. “They’re a good team. They played better than we did today. We’ll make some adjustments. We’ll figure this out and on Monday we’ll have to match their intensity and if we don’t, we’ll get beat again. It’s pretty simple.
“We have to play harder, do it a little bit longer and do it better. We just didn’t do that today.”