MINNEAPOLIS—Minnesota’s slow-to-develop, up-and-down defense has finally started to shine, against this high-octane Houston team no less.
There’s been no wait quite like the one for a win by the Timberwolves in the playoffs, though.
Jimmy Butler hit four three-pointers among his 28 points, and Karl-Anthony Towns snapped back from a bad start to the series with 18 points and 16 rebounds, leading the Timberwolves past the Rockets, 121-105, in Game Three last Saturday night for their first postseason victory in 14 years.
“This city deserves being in the playoffs a little bit longer,” Butler said. “We’ll see what we have. But as long as we guard, as long as we defend, we’ll put ourselves in a good enough position to win.”
Jeff Teague scored 23 points and Andrew Wiggins pitched in 20 points with another four three-pointers, helping the Timberwolves match the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) best three-point shooting team with 15 makes apiece from long range. Minnesota took 27; Houston launched 41.
“I tell everybody all the time, as long as you’re in rhythm, no matter if somebody’s in front of you or not, it’s a good shot for you because we think that you can make that,” Butler said after the Wolves shot 50 percent overall from the floor.
Not to be left out was Derrick Rose and his 17 points off the bench, including 10 points in nine minutes before halftime. The Wolves closed the third quarter with a 26-14 run and produced spurts of 15-3 and 11-2 in the final period, perfecting their plan to play at a faster pace.
“We’ve got to do a better job of imposing our will at the beginning of the game,” said James Harden, who led the Rockets with 29 points.
The Rockets made four three-pointers on their last seven possessions of the first half to turn an 11-point deficit to just one in less than three-and-a-half minutes up until the break. Butler twisted his left ankle during that stretch, causing him to clutch his foot in pain and create some brief anxiety in the arena, but he didn’t require, or at least accept, any medical attention. There was no hint that he was hurt in the second half.
“He’s the heart and soul,” said Teague, who made three three-pointers himself. “When he’s out there competing, it rubs off on everybody.”
Taj Gibson hounded Harden and forced an airballed three-pointer, prompting the apex of the noise throughout the night with the Wolves ahead 77-70. Towns powered his way past Ryan Anderson for a lay-up and a three-point play with 1:57 left in the third quarter, pushing the lead to 10 points, and he flexed his biceps to the crowd after the whistle as he walked like King Kong to the corner of the court in celebration. There was no letdown in the fourth quarter, either.
“Give them a lot of credit. A lot of their threes were butt naked, too. We were giving them uncontested threes, and you know we’ve got to be better,” said Chris Paul, who fouled out with 17 points.
For the first time since May 29, 2004, the fifth game of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA playoffs descended on downtown Minneapolis. The shine of this long-awaited return to relevance by the 29-year-old franchise was dulled a bit by the team’s fade down the stretch to finish eighth in the conference and draw the most daunting matchup available against a Rockets team that won all four regular season games by an average of 16 points and took the first two games of this series in Houston.
The occasion was still plenty special, though, with the memory of late coach and executive Flip Saunders not far from the minds of the Target Center regulars, and the sellout crowd matched the moment to make the arena louder than it had been all season.
“It was crazy. All the fans were in the game the whole time,” Wiggins said. “They helped us gain momentum going forward.”