In Game 3 of the Timberwolves-Rockets playoff series, Karl-Anthony Towns threw actual shade at James Harden, cupping a hand over his eyes after a Harden airball.
In Game 4, Harden became a human torch, erasing a Timberwolves lead and any shadow of a doubt as to who will win this playoff series with the kind of self-assured, scenery-eating performance that remains the province of true NBA superstars.
You don’t tug on Superman’s cape or James Harden’s beard. Monday night, Harden missed his first seven shots, then scored 36 points, including 22 in the Rockets’ historic 50 point third quarter, in a 119-100, series-defining win.
That’s right: The Houston Rockets scored 50 points in one quarter of a playoff game against a team that was just starting to feel good about its defense.
You must fear the beard when your defense has trouble getting near the beard.
“He was pretty good,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.
The Timberwolves had slowed Harden in the first 3½ games of the series by contesting his three-point shots. Harden began the third quarter with a drive for a basket, then drew a foul at the three-point line and made all three free throws. Sandwiched around a Chris Paul three-pointer, those plays gave the Rockets a 58-49 lead.
After another Paul three-pointer, Harden made a two-point jumper, finished a drive, hit a three-pointer, then swished another floater from the lane.
It was 70-54 and Wolves defenders had lost their way. They began cutting underneath screens, allowing Harden open three-pointers. When Harden drove, Wolves defenders looked so worried about potential lob passes to Clint Capela, that they often let Harden shoot floaters, uncontested, from three feet away.
“The first six minutes, we gave them everything,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said of the third quarter. “Paul and Harden were a load.”
Saturday night, playoff basketball returned to Target Center, and by the end of the Timberwolves’ victory, the crowd had grown loud, as if it had begun to believe.
Monday night, the atmosphere changed, for the better. The crowd was intense from the start, as if understanding the the Wolves’ appearance in the playoffs might be more than an experience-building exercise.
This feeling was bolstered in the first half. The Wolves put on a burst early in the second quarter, with Derrick Rose running the floor like a halfback, finishing one-man fast-breaks. When Jamal Crawford hit a jumper, the Wolves took a 36-29 lead and the arena was as loud as it has been, rock concerts excepted, since 2004.
Then Harden returned to the game and demonstrated the difference between the Rockets and the Wolves. Harden gives the Rockets a superstar, and certainty. The Wolves can’t match either, and won’t until Towns learns to assert himself against a good defense in a big series.
Regardless of his shooting percentage or the score, Harden continued to do what probably will make him the NBA’s most valuable player, and what made the Rockets the NBA’s best team this season.
A Timberwolves victory in Game 4 would have ensured one more home game and would have placed a modicum of pressure on the Rockets. Instead, Harden left little doubt that the Rockets will win the series, and less doubt that they can get the shots they want whenever they want.
The Wolves had a lead in the second quarter, faced the narrowest of deficits at the half ... and by the end of the third quarter trailed 100-69.
“We came out lackadaisical,” Jimmy Butler said.
“We just got hot,” Paul said. “It was our defense. We were getting rebounds and we’re tough in transition.”
Paul’s gamesmanship irritated Wolves point guard Jeff Teague, who confronted Paul in the second half.
Harden, conversely, rarely irritates or gets irritated. While the Wolves looked anxious, Harden remained calm, shredded their defense and led his team to a 50-point quarter.
“We scored 50 points,” Harden said. “What else is there to say?”