By Tim MacMahon ESPN Staff Writer
HOUSTON — The critics James Harden claims not to hear won’t be hushed by a spectacular performance in the series opener of the first round. For Harden, now more than ever, the playoffs are about how he finishes, not how he starts.
And the Rockets, record-setting 3-point gunners whose long-range touch (outside of Harden) failed them Sunday night at the Toyota Center, needed that kind of performance from their superstar — a player who infamously no-showed as Houston’s season ended on its home court last May.
Harden torched the Timberwolves for 44 points on 15-of-26 shooting, including 7-of-12 from 3-point range. The rest of the Rockets made only 3 of 25 3-point attempts — a rare 12 percent brickfest for a team that broke its own year-old record for 3s made in a season — but Harden was simply too good to let eighth-seeded Minnesota start the series by sneaking out an upset.
An unconventional fastbreak with the confusion after the missed free throw. pic.twitter.com/JL74Lv3gJS
— RealGM (@RealGM) April 16, 2018
“Another day for James,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of the NBA’s season scoring leader. “He’s done it all year. He really stepped up. We were struggling to make shots, struggling to really have any kind of rhythm of play, and James put us on his back. He’s been doing it for a while now.”
Time after time, “The Beard” hit big shots when momentum seemed to be swaying to Minnesota’s side. Soon after the Timberwolves took a lead midway through the fourth quarter, Harden re-entered the game and immediately went on a do-it-himself 7-0 run, hitting a floater off the glass, driving for a layup and drilling a pull-up 3 in transition.