MINNEAPOLIS — As much as the Rockets could stay in the game whenever James Harden caught a wave and rode it to a burst of 3s, there was the small matter of the other end of the floor.
Some things, as the Rockets reached the All-Star break, had not changed.
The Timberwolves poured in points from the start. With the game on the line, however, the Rockets were more helpless to stop them than ever. The Timberwolves made 11 of 14 shots in the final eight minutes, holding off Harden’s late charge and finishing off a 121-111 win Wednesday night.
Harden finished with 42 points, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers after he needed to call time out after limping away from a collision with the Wolves’ Dario Saric. But with the Wolves up eight heading to the final minute, Harden and Chris Paul missed 3-pointers and Harden lost the ball out of bounds, ending the Rockets’ long-shot chances.
The real issue, however, was defensively. The Wolves made 54.4 percent of their shots, including 10 of 20 3-pointers, while scoring 70 points in the paint to score far too easily for the Rockets to keep pace.
The Rockets scored well enough for a stretch to lead. After taking his 30-point scoring streak down to his last shot Monday, Harden wasted little time taking care of that piece of business. With a four-point play — his league-high 15th of the season — he had 31 points with 7:19 left in the third quarter and the Rockets held a seven-point lead.
Harden had tied Wilt Chamberlain for the second-longest streak of 30 point games at 31, 34 from Chamberlain’s record. But the Rockets could not build on that.
The Rockets slowed badly offensively. Harden stepped out of bounds recovering a loose ball. Josh Okogie stripped him. Nene came up empty at the rim. After Harden missed a 3 and Gerald Green turned the ball over trying to set up Nene inside, Harden had to go up to beat the shot clock with Okogie stuffing him to get the Target Center crowd roaring.
Okogie completed a 10-0 run to a three-point lead with a 3-pointer. When Derrick Rose finished a three-point play late in the half, the Wolves had gone from a nine-point deficit early in the second half to a nine-point lead.
Eric Gordon and Paul finished the quarter with a flurry that reduced the Wolves’ lead to 87-84. But the Rockets had yet to show they could reliably slow the Wolves when the starters were on the floor.
That was enough for Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni to start the fourth quarter with Harden back in early, playing in four-guard lineup around Kenneth Faried.
At first, that worked. The Rockets scored on four of five possessions to start the quarter with Harden passing to Faried for a dunk and Gordon for a 3-pointer to bring the Rockets to within one, but also to bring Karl-Anthony Towns back in. With a Towns 3-pointer and a jumper around a pair of missed Harden 3s, the Wolves took a 100-94 lead and the Rockets did not seem able to have an option to stop the Wolves inside or Towns from anywhere.
That had been an issue from the opening tip.
The Rockets could have withstood a slow offensive start — with Harden and Paul a combined 2-of-7 in the first quarter — had they defended with any force. But the Timberwolves moved easily to the rim, to the point that when they began the second quarter making five of seven shots, all on dunks or layups, they had 28 points in the paint through less than 16 minutes.
When D’Antoni took a timeout early in the quarter, it was unclear whether he just wanted to return Harden and P.J. Tucker, who had been at the scorers’ table for several possessions, to the game or needed to suggest the Rockets try some defense.
When they did, with the Wolves making just four of 13 shots in the rest of the half, Harden got going and the Rockets turned an eight-point deficit to an eight-point lead.
Harden had 15 of his 20 first-half points in 8½ second-quarter minutes to drive the Rockets to a 58-52 halftime lead. When he opened the second half with a 3-pointer and a drive, the Rockets held a nine-point lead.
The Timberwolves went back to finishing layups. Within minutes, the lead was gone. It had become clear that without more than occasional stops, nothing would be easy.