Harden scores 44 as Rockets edge Wolves

(Reuters) James Harden delivered a virtuoso performance, aided significantly by a Clint Capela double-double, and the Houston Rockets survived Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round series, earning a 104-101 victory over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday.

Harden finished with 44 points and eight assists, carrying the Rockets to a 1-0 series lead. Capela chipped in 24 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.

Houston overcame its own ineffective perimeter shooting (10 of 37 from 3-point range) and a solid effort from the Timberwolves, who had five players score in double figures, paced by Andrew Wiggins with 18 points.

Minnesota, dominated by the Rockets during the four-game regular season series, led 86-85 on two free throws from Jamal Crawford (15 points) with 6:49 remaining. Harden followed with a driving bank shot off the glass, a layup and a pair of 3-pointers to push the Rockets to a 97-88 lead.

Harden finished 15 of 26 from the floor, 7 of 12 from behind the arc, to counter poor shooting from the trio of Chris Paul, Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza, who were a combined 9 of 30. Paul was uncharacteristically erratic, posting six turnovers while missing 5 of 6 3-point attempts. He scored 14 points.

Jeff Teague flirted with a triple-double (15 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) while Derrick Rose added 16 points off the bench for Minnesota. The Timberwolves got eight points and 12 rebounds from Karl-Anthony Towns.

Surviving the early haymaker from the Rockets set Minnesota on a positive path. Houston attacked the rim with impunity behind Capela while surging to a 17-6 lead, but Wiggins exploited enough mismatches to keep the Timberwolves within striking distance. Minnesota turned an 8-0 spurt into a 21-21 tie and flipped an 11-4 run in the second into a 38-36 lead.

That’s when Harden, who had seven points and three assists in the first quarter, came alive. He paired with Capela to spark an 11-0 rally capped by his step-back 3-pointer, and then added another trey, a second-chance basket and a layup for a 54-44 lead.

When Minnesota countered with a 12-0 run that bridged the second and third periods, the tone was set. The Rockets shooting 4 of 19 on 3-point attempts prior to the break helped the Timberwolves’ cause.

Game 2 is tomorrow night at Houston’s Toyota Center.

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