James Harden’s shot missed everything but the floor, bouncing into the Target Center crowd.
Karl-Anthony Towns placed his hand over his eyes, as if finding the ball would require search parties and satellite images.
With one motion in Game 3, Towns insulted the player likely to win the Most Valuable Player award and heightened the tension in the first-round playoff series between his Timberwolves and Harden’s Rockets.
What is surprising is not that Towns would emote, but that he found himself in a position to taunt.
The Rockets won 65 games this season and cruised to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. The Wolves won 47 and had to beat Denver in their last regular-season game to become the eighth seed. The series was designed to be a mismatch, but anyone looking for separation between the two teams after three games might as well mimic Towns’ gesture.
“We know we’re playing against a juggernaut,” Wolves guard Derrick Rose said.
But that’s not the way it looks.
The Rockets averaged 112.4 points per game this season. The Wolves have held them to 103.7 points per game in this series. The Wolves have averaged 101.3.
The Wolves had a chance to tie Game 1 with a late three-pointer, then dominated the first quarter of Game 2 before Houston pulled away. The Wolves dominated Game 3.
The Wolves have advantages in shooting percentage (44.4 to 42.7 percent), three-point shooting percentage (41.2 to 31.5 percent), rebounds (46.7 per game to 43.3 per game and assists (22.0 to 18.3).
The series is far more even than expected because the Wolves have hinted at what they could become and the Rockets have provided reminders that their key figures — Harden, Chris Paul and Mike D’Antoni — don’t have to lock any NBA championship rings in the hotel safe when they leave for the arena.
“I feel like it’s been a good series,” Wolves forward Taj Gibson said. “Both teams are just going hard, laying it on the line. I think the level of competition is like neck and neck as far as the energy and the competitiveness. Guys just taking on the challenge and it’s real physical. You don’t understand how physical it is, but from being in the game, it’s real physical. You can tell guys are just getting tired of seeing each other already.”
The Wolves have won but one game, and one victory can be meaningless. Worse, one victory can deceive.
The Wild won a game against Winnipeg in the playoffs, changing nothing. The Vikings celebrated one of their greatest moments when Stefon Diggs beat the Saints, leading to one of the most embarrassing games in franchise history.
Saturday night, the Wolves won, impressively, against the team with the best regular-season record in the NBA, cutting Houston’s advantage in the first-round playoff series to 2-1.
Whether that victory is a token or part of a trend, the Wolves’ competitiveness in this series has been built on factors that only a few weeks ago looked like demerits on coach Tom Thibodeau’s record.
Give Andrew Wiggins a maximum contract? In this series, Wiggins has played like a star.
Bring in Rose? He’s been one of the Wolves’ best players.
Sign Jeff Teague and trade Ricky Rubio? Both have played well in this year’s playoffs, and the Wolves got a first-round draft pick in the exchange.
Rely on Thibodeau to improve team defense? After a shoddy regular season, the Wolves have slowed one of the game’s best offenses.
Trade for Jimmy Butler? Butler has been excellent all season, but his insistence on fighting through an ankle injury in Game 3 reiterated his value as a personality as well as a player.
The Rockets are and should be favored to win the series, but through three games they have not played like the dominant team they were supposed to be. With a hand to his forehead, Towns silently asked where the NBA’s best team has been.