Sometimes, it’s as simple as a potential MVP playing like one against a team that’s gone cold from the floor.
All in all, the lottery-destined Timberwolves (12-43) hung with a playoff-bound Rockets (38-18) team that didn’t exactly flip the lights off Monday night at the Toyota Center. But James Harden’s killer instinct in front of 18,240 fans proved enough late on one of Minnesota’s worst shooting efforts in a derailed season.
1 big moment: Harden sometimes defies all logic, so he gets two — his ankle-breaking, crossover stepback 3-pointer over Ricky Rubio that made it 84-75 with 3.6 seconds left in the third quarter, and a similar triple in Andrew Wiggins’ eye that iced the game with 1:33 remaining, giving Houston a 107-98 advantage.
There’s a reason Harden’s teammates call it "the stepback of death." Just ask Rubio, who ended up on his rump as a result of the MVP candidate’s trademark move.
2 top performers: Chants of MVP rained down as Harden tallied his fourth career triple-double and second this season — 31 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Even though he was tasked with guarding Harden, Wiggins stood out on his 20th birthday, finishing with 30 points and six boards. He even picked up his first technical foul.
3 key stats: The outcome was virtually decided in the third quarter when Minnesota went 4 for 30 (13.3 percent) from the field. That’s the sixth-worst shooting quarter in franchise history, the Wolves’ worst mark in any quarter this season and their lowest third-frame clip since Dec. 21, 2008 against Boston. Minnesota shot 33.3 percent for the night, its lowest output in 2014-15.
After starting 1 for 16 from 3-point range, the Rockets made 11 of their final 22 distance attempts. Harden led the way, finishing 5 for 11 from beyond the arc.
With power forward Adreian Payne making his first career start, injury-riddled Minnesota used its 20th different starting lineup this season. Payne notched his first career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds but missed 11 of 15 field-goal attempts.
Said: "Of course he’s missed. Everybody love Corey, and not just because he was a great player; he was a great person, too. He’s the kind of player that having him in the locker room make you smile. You see him in the locker room smiling and having fun all the time and enjoying life." — Rubio on Rockets forward Corey Brewer, whom the Wolves traded earlier this season
Seen: Brewer shaking hands with coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, shooting guard Kevin Martin and others after Brewer’s first matchup with his former Minnesota teammates. Drafted seventh overall by Minnesota in 2007, Brewer spent two separate stints in the Twin Cities before Saunders dealt him Dec. 19.
Injury report: Shabazz Muhammad underwent surgery Monday morning to repair the ruptured ligament in the middle finger on his left hand. With help from Wolves orthopedic surgeon Diane Dahm, Dr. Richard Berger performed the operation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Muhammad will miss the rest of the season. He joined shooting guard Gary Neal (sprained right ankle), power forward Anthony Bennett (sprained right ankle) and Robbie Hummel (broken right hand) on Monday’s inactive list.
Next: The Wolves will practice Tuesday afternoon before Kevin Garnett is re-introduced at a 3 p.m. press conference at the Target Center. Obtained from Brooklyn last week, the best player in franchise history will make his "debut" Wednesday when Minnesota hosts Washington.