With his first-round playoff series against Houston now 3-1, Timberwolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford has been here before.
Only on the other side.
Crawford’s Los Angeles Clippers thumped this same Rockets franchise at home by 25 and 33 points while taking a 3-1 series lead in the second round of the 2015 playoffs and led by 19 points late in the third quarter of a closeout Game 6 they lost by 12.
If Crawford learned anything from living through such an epic collapse, it’s that stuff happens.
The Rockets outscored his Wolves 50-20 in Monday’s lopsided third quarter that bordered on the historic and now the Wolves return to Houston for Game 5 needing to win the next three games to advance.
“You don’t look at it that way,” Crawford said. “I’ve been on teams against Houston where I was up 3-1. You just take it one at a time and go from there.”
Eleven teams in NBA history have taken it one at a time and recovered from a 3-1 series deficit, starting with the 1968 Boston Celtics. In 2016 Golden State, which won a record 73 regular-season games, rallied in the Western Conference to beat an Oklahoma City team that featured both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for the very last time. The Warriors then took a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals before losing to LeBron James and the Cavaliers, who won twice in Oakland, Calif., in their historic comeback.
Three years ago, the Rockets pulled off a comeback for the ages that Crawford earlier this season described as being about “fate and all that other stuff.”
Now the Wolves will have to do something similar against a Houston team that won 65 regular-season games and with James Harden scoring 22 of his 36 points in a single quarter absolutely blitzed the Wolves in Monday’s third quarter at Target Center.
Their 50 points scored in those 12 minutes was one point shy of an NBA playoffs record for most points scored in a quarter, by the 1962 Los Angeles Lakers that did so in a fourth quarter against Detroit and still lost.
First to four
The Wolves have lost three of the series’ first four games, but Andrew Wiggins maintains they haven’t had their confidence shaken, not even by Harden’s unstoppable scoring display nor by the Rockets’ smothering defense.
“Not at all, we know what we’ve got to do to win,” Wiggins said.
“We know what we’ve got to do next game: Just take this game, throw it away and move past it.”
Wiggins said he and his teammates must play the rest of the series “like every game is our last, because it is. We’re fighting for our lives now: Lose one and we’re out, so that desperation is going to be there.”
The way Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau sees it, his team faces elimination Wednesday mostly because it has played two bad quarters, Game 2’s 37-17 second quarter and Monday’s 50-20 thrashing.
The Rockets scored 27 of the third quarter’s first 32 points and Harden went 7-for-10 from the field — including three three-pointers made — in that quarter with step-back threes and fearless drives to the rim.
“I know how explosive they are,” Thibodeau said. “If you have a bad quarter like we did, 37 was a lot. So 50 is a lot.”
Wolves four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler searched for the right word to describe Monday’s third-quarter collapse and repeated one from an interviewer’s question that didn’t fit.
“I don’t think disappointing is the word,” Butler said. “We just know we can be better. We have to do better. It’s not over yet. It’s still the first team to four [victories]. We’ve just got to go and get one here in Houston.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni credited Monday’s third quarter to Harden’s brilliance and his team’s defensive proficiency. He also mentioned effort, “the atmosphere of the game, the right intensity and fear factor” for inspiring his team.
Asked if his team has found a rhythm now after Game 4’s rout, D’Antoni said, “I’m so afraid of my shadow. I don’t know. I know that we’ve got to keep this intensity. It’s not over. It’s 3-1. Obviously, it was a big game for us. Now it’s started and they’ve got to come back and get us. But we need to defend home court. More importantly, we need to play like we did with our hair on fire, and I feel like we did the whole first three quarters.”
D’Antoni acknowledged that the Rockets’ 50-20 demolition in a mere 12 minutes might have changed the complexion of the entire series.
“Well, it could,” he said. “We have an opportunity for it to be changed. They’ll come at us, and we’ll have to play. We’ll have to play with the same intensity, but obviously I like where we’re sitting. But I’ve been here before and that doesn’t mean anything. We’ll have to play.”
Harden and starting forward Trevor Ariza are the only two Rockets left from that 2015 that delivered such a crushing comeback defeat. Teammate Chris Paul played for the Clippers back then.
“Chris, he talks about that,” Harden said after the Rockets practiced in Houston on Tuesday. “We know how important tomorrow’s game is obviously.”
Paul talks about such a painful thing?
“He mentioned it,” Harden said.
In December, Crawford said about that series: “I’m not sure you ever get over those, to be honest with you,” and said he still might wake up “10 years from now” regretting one that got away.
He called Monday’s chance to tie the Rockets 2-2 a “golden opportunity” lost.
“It’s disappointing,” Crawford said. “I’m not saying it can’t be done. We just have to do it the hard way.”