For the Timberwolves, a tale of two halves is becoming a pretty stale tale. Especially now, late in the NBA season, with the Western Conference race so taut and every game so tight.
Sunday night at Target Center against Houston, a game in which both teams were finishing up a back-to-back after arriving in the Twin Cities in the early-morning hours, the Wolves dug themselves a hole in the first half so deep that a rather spectacular second half wasn’t enough to avoid a 129-120 loss to what might be the NBA’s best team.
Down 25 points only two minutes into the second half, the Wolves rallied to within five late, but couldn’t get over the top against a composed Rockets team that never truly lost control of the game.
“Too deep a hole,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We can’t do that, where we are right now. The fight has to be greater. … I know we’re capable of doing better.”
The Wolves (40-31) lost their second game in two nights, falling to the eighth spot in the Western Conference with the Los Angeles Clippers playing here Tuesday. Minnesota leads Denver by 1 1/2 games and the Clippers by two with 11 games to play.
“I thought we were on our heels in the first half a little bit,” said Jamal Crawford, who came off the bench and scored 20 points. He and Derrick Rose — who had 14 points and three assists in his best performance in a Wolves uniform — were keys to the comeback. “Second half, we were the aggressors.”
The Rockets (56-14) got 52 points from their backcourt of James Harden (34 and 12 assists) and Chris Paul (18 points, nine assists, eight rebounds).
The Wolves got 23 points and 11 assists from Jeff Teague, 21 points from Andrew Wiggins and 20 points and 18 rebounds from Karl-Anthony Towns. But it wasn’t enough to climb out of that hole.
With 4:06 left in the first quarter, the Wolves were within 20-17. But over the next 12-plus minutes, Houston outscored the Wolves 50-29, taking a 24-point lead on Trevor Ariza’s three-pointer with 3:20 left in the first half.
That lead was 25 early in the third before the Wolves found their legs. Minnesota — which outscored Houston 64-52 in the second half — trimmed the Houston lead to 16 entering the fourth and were within 13 with 10:13 left when Gorgui Dieng initiated a melee that lit a spark under his teammates. After taking what he thought was a cheap shot from Paul, Dieng pushed Paul to the floor. Rockets reserve Gerald Green then knocked Dieng down, igniting some pushing and shoving. The end result: Foul on Paul, technicals on Dieng and Green, and Green was ejected.
And the Wolves ignited.
“I felt he threw a cheap shot at me, and I just responded,” Dieng said.
Moments later, Teague hit two free throws and the lead was 11. Seconds later, Rose cut for a layup to make it 100-109. Ultimately, the Wolves pulled within five at 115-110 with 3:58 left when Rose fed Towns for a dunk.
But out of a timeout, after an offensive rebound of a miss, Ariza hit a corner three and Houston was never seriously threatened again.
The Rockets shot 63.6 percent and hit 11 three-pointers while scoring 77 first-half points, the most points given up in a half by the Wolves this season. In the second half, Houston scored 52 points and shot 44.1 percent.
“If we play like that all four quarters, we’d have won the game,” Towns said. “We put ourselves in position to lose.”
And every loss is dangerous right now. Teams 5 through 8 in the West all have 40 victories. Utah, New Orleans and San Antonio are all 40-30, the Wolves 40-31. The Clippers and Denver are in a virtual tie for ninth, 1½ games behind the Wolves, who have 11 games left to play.
“I don’t look at that,” Crawford said. “It will change 10 more times before the season is over with. If we do what we have to do, we won’t have to worry about what everyone else is doing.”