Rockets aim to close out Timberwolves

(Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

(AP) -- HOUSTON -- There was an undeniable inevitability in the Houston Rockets finally unleashing their full potential offensively, with the only legitimate ambiguity being exactly when it would happen.

That moment arrived without warning in the third quarter of Game 4, with Houston producing a 50-point outburst that staggered the Minnesota Timberwolves and gave the Rockets control of their Western Conference first-round playoff series. Houston used that eruption to propel it toward a 119-100 victory on Monday night at the Target Center, giving the Rockets a 3-1 lead in the series. It also gave Houston the opportunity to conclude the series at Toyota Center in Game 5 on Wednesday night.

The Rockets had trudged along on offense even while establishing a 2-1 series lead, averaging a pedestrian 103.7 points entering Game 4 while producing a modest 31.5 percentage on 3-pointers. Houston flirted with statistical immortality during the regular season, ranking among the most efficient offenses in league history before losing its edge over the final weeks of the schedule, specifically after the Rockets clinched the top seed in the West at the end of March.

Over their final six regular-season games, the Rockets posted an offensive rating (101.3) that ranked 26th in the NBA. That lagging momentum carried over into the playoffs until the second half on Monday when the Rockets broke free from their lethargy and reclaimed their identity.

"We talked about it going into the game about being aggressive, and I think we all just tried to do that," said Rockets guard Chris Paul, who paired 25 points with six assists in the victory.

"Just the entire team, we were confident," said Rockets guard James Harden, who scored a franchise playoff-record 22 points in the third quarter en route to a game-high 36. "We had a good talk (Sunday), a good practice (Sunday). And even most of the guys stayed after practice just to shoot, shoot the basketball and be aggressive. We had the mentality to be aggressive. Make or miss shots, that's what we do. We shoot the basketball, and eventually, they start falling."

In producing the second-most points in any quarter in NBA postseason history, the Rockets not only pushed the Timberwolves to the brink of elimination, they put Minnesota in the precarious position of having to acknowledge what has been obvious all along. The Timberwolves' defense wasn't explicitly responsible for the Rockets' wayward perimeter shooting entering Monday, and when Houston converts open looks at an average clip -- the Rockets shot 16 of 43 on 3s -- the Timberwolves are essentially helpless at stopping the deluge.

As postseason series extend, team identities solidify. The Rockets reclaiming their offensive rhythm was as predictable an outcome as the Timberwolves showcasing their defensive warts.

Minnesota closed the season ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency (108.4), with the foundation of its four losses to the Rockets set on the defensive end. It might be easy to dismiss a 50-point period as an anomaly, but the reality of the Rockets' offensive momentum can't be denied. The Timberwolves staved off the inevitable for three-plus games and are now left to hope that the Rockets will start missing again in order for this series to include a return trip to Minneapolis.

"How many points did they score in the third? Fifty? Exactly," Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose said. "Do we even have to say something? It can be seen easily what happened in the game and why they took off. Our job is to look at film, see what our mistakes were, and try to execute a little better on the defensive end."

Said Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns: "You've got to give it to them. There's a reason they're the team they are."

Updated April 24, 2018

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