Houston Rockets v Minnesota Timberwolves

Rockets hardly perfect in cruising to series-clinching Game 5 win

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James Harden (Getty Images)

HOUSTON - Three quarters. Three wicked, lights-out quarters in five games is basically all it took for the Rockets to handle their business in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

The Timberwolves could not have handled much more against the No. 1 overall seed in these playoffs. The 65-win Rockets team, the juggernaut that rolled over opponents for long stretches this season, could have easily ended this series in a sweep.

But those Rockets have been missing in action for quite some time, according to coach Mike D'Antoni.

In his estimation, it's been a month or so since his team played the sort of inspired basketball that was their norm, the kind of basketball that chases away ghosts of postseasons past for D'Antoni and Rockets' stars James Harden and Chris Paul.

All three of them came into this season saddled with the added pressure of never reaching their zenith in the postseason. It's the one black mark on the otherwise stellar careers that they share. This postseason presented them with an opportunity to exorcise those demons, to wipe away the stain with some of the sustained excellence they showed off throughout the 2017-18 season.

So when his team is up by 19 points and in complete control of a closeout game they were trailing by 10 just minutes earlier, D'Antoni has every right to fuss and cuss in the timeout huddle.

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He also has every right to laugh and joke about it later, as he did after the Rockets finished off the Timberwolves 122-104 in Game 5 Wednesday night at Toyota Center. He'll take a 4-1 series victory every time, no matter how bad it might look to a perfectionist's eye getting there.

"We're not good enough where we can just pick and choose quarters," D'Antoni said through a tense smile. "First of all, Minnesota never quit. They've got a lot of talent … they're good. They made us work for everything. So we came up with three good quarters and knocked them out."

D'Antoni's right. And that won't work in the conference semifinals, where the Rockets will take on either the Jazz or Thunder, who head back to Salt Lake City for Friday's Game 6 in a series Utah leads 3-2.

It won't work in a meat-grinder of a postseason that has seen just one team on either side of the conference divide, the Pelicans, sweep its first-round series. It won't work against the Pelicans or the reigning-champion Warriors, who will square off in the other Western Conference semifinal.

Cruise control works when you have the Kia MVP frontrunner (Harden) playing at an otherworldly level, an all-time great point guard covering his back (Paul) with yet another All-Star caliber season and a supporting cast perfectly suited to thrive off the energy that duo produces.

But not in the playoffs. Teams must take it up another notch or two with every you step out take deeper and deeper into the postseason pressure cooker. Harden knows as much, having struggled on the biggest stage before, The Finals in 2012 when he was with the Thunder.

"It's a pretty good step for us, a step in the right direction," Harden said. "But we still have a long way to go."

It took the fifth and final game of the series for the Rockets to finally get back to some semblance of the team that ran roughshod through the league all season, and even then they only managed to do it for a half.

They didn't duplicate the 50-point third quarter that carried them to a Game 4 win in Minnesota, the second-highest scoring quarter in NBA playoff history.

But they got everything they needed outscoring the Timberwolves 30-15 in the third quarter of Game 5, reminding themselves and others that there are new levels this team can reach when it is properly locked on to the task at hand.

They made a series-high 18 3-pointers and shot 51.1 percent after shooting 41.6 percent in Games 1-3. Harden and Paul had a combined seven points at halftime, but turned it up in that third quarter to jumpstart the comeback.

Harden finished with 24 points and a game-high 12 assists and Paul with 12 and nine, both of them redeeming themselves after uncharacteristic first-half efforts.

As good as they were in the end, it was that aforementioned supporting cast that shined brightest Wednesday.

Clint Capela had a playoff career-high 26 points on 12-for-14 shooting to go along with 15 rebounds, completing his thorough domination of Timberwolves All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who struggled mightily in his postseason debut.

"I thought he was incredible," D'Antoni said of Capela. "His thrust and force, his rebounding, what he did and the stamina. He played 33 minutes and there was no dip at all. He was incredible. You don't get much better than that. Now I know he plays the way that we play, but in that role he has, there's nobody better in the league."

Veteran forwards Trevor Ariza (16 points, 4 3-pointers) and P.J. Tucker (playoff career-high 15 points after scoring 16 points combined in Games 1-4) got in on the fun, too, as did reigning Kia Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon (series-high 19 points).

Ariza, the one player on the roster who owns a championship ring (Lakers, 2009) acknowledged the importance of handling the business at hand. He knows that the road ahead is more grueling than what the Rockets experienced against the Timberwolves.

"I think it's good, it will give us time to rest and give us time to work on things that we didn't do so well," he said. "But the fact that we got it over with, it's an encouraging thing."

Given what lies ahead for any team with championship ambitions, but especially these Rockets, a little time to reflect and refocus before the next challenge might be exactly what's needed.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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