– Meeting the Western Conference’s second-best team for the first time this season here in mid-January, the Timberwolves endured a 116-98 loss at Houston on Thursday night that might have reminded them just how far they need to go if they’re serious about a playoff run.

Winners 12 times in 15 games only four days earlier, the Wolves went winless on a two-game trip that started Tuesday in Orlando and now face four teams with winning records dead ahead, three of them on the road.

 
 

“We just talked about that,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said after emerging from his team’s locker room long after the game. “Things can change very quickly in this league. We went from winning five in a row and now we’ve slipped and we’ve got to play with more of an edge and we have to bounce back. The games keep coming.”

Rockets superstar James Harden returned to action after missing seven games because of a strained hamstring. He didn’t score 20 points for the first time this season, a 35-game stretch to start the season that only legendary centers Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have also accomplished.

Harden scored 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting while being restricted to 26 minutes. While he struggled, the Rockets shot their way to a 19-point lead by the end of the third quarter by putting the ball in Chris Paul’s hands. He put it in the hands of others, including shooter Eric Gordon (30 points) and big man Clint Capela (20).

The Wolves were outscored 51-24 on three-point shots and a combined 31-7 to end the first three quarters by a Rockets team playing without suspended forward Trevor Ariza and guard Gerald Green.

Two days after his Wolves lost to the Magic, which had won once since Dec. 6, Thibodeau called Thursday’s loss “good” because of what it reveals of the team’s shortcomings.

“It reveals something to you,” he said. “It tells us we have a lot of work to do.”

With the score tied at 17, Gordon scored the first quarter’s final nine points on a three-point play and two of his seven three-pointers.

The Rockets led by five points late in the second quarter, until Paul made two three-pointers and Gordon made one in a 13-5 run that produced a 63-50 halftime lead. The Wolves took away neither the three nor Capela or Nene inside.

“A 10-point lead in the West is like a five-point lead,” Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson said.

The Rockets then scored nine of the third quarter’s final 11 points, including Gordon’s banked 50-foot shot at the buzzer.

VideoVideo (04:17): After winning 12 of 15 games, the Timberwolves lost consecutive games when they couldn't finish strong after of the first three quarters Thursday in Houston.

“When a team shoots threes the way they do — and that’s the way of our league — one or two bad minutes and that’s 10 points,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t let your guard down and you have to play with a lot of toughness.”

They did, and they didn’t.

“It just gives us a reminder what a really, really good team looks like and the way they play,” said star guard Jimmy Butler, whose 23 points and teammate Karl-Anthony Towns’ 22-point, 16-rebound double-double led the Wolves. “And if you don’t play hard and don’t do what we talk about before the game, what that team can look like.”

The loss gave Thibodeau and his team an idea of where they still need to go.

“This is an elite team,” Thibodeau said of the Rockets. “Their record says how good they are. Their numbers say how good they are. Everyone has to know what we’re doing and you have to be tied together. You have to be disciplined.”