MINNEAPOLIS -- The Houston Rockets executed the opening play of the second half perfectly. James Harden took the dribble handoff from Chris Paul, who set a screen on Jimmy Butler, freeing his costar to cruise down the middle of the lane for a lefty floater.
It was a perfect opportunity for Harden to get a little rhythm after a rough first half for the probable MVP. But the ball bounced one, two, three, four times on the rim before falling off, Harden's 11th miss on his first 15 field goal attempts.
Man, this might just be another one of those nights for the NBA's regular-season scoring leader. Yeah, right.
That was one of the only things that went wrong for Harden and the Rockets in the third quarter of their 119-100 rout of the Minnesota Timberwolves in Monday night's Game 4. Houston's 50-point frame was a dozen-minute display of the rare skill and ridiculous potential of the pairing of two Hall of Fame playmakers.
It was really the first time during these playoffs that the Rockets, who had locked up the NBA's best record by the end of March, got in a rhythm. It took them only 14 quarters.
"One quarter we get hot, and that's it," Harden said.
That was the game. That was almost certainly the series, with the Rockets taking a commanding 3-1 lead before returning to Houston. That's all the Rockets needed to regain the swagger of a 65-win team after sort of scuffling through the first few games of this first-round series.
Harden refused to let the Rockets lose Game 1, when he put up 44 points and eight assists, covering for Paul's off-night. Paul returned the favor with a 27-point, eight-dime, bounce-back performance in Game 2, which combined with a dominant defensive effort was more than enough to make up for Harden's 2-of-18 bricklaying.
Finally, a couple days after the Timberwolves recorded their first playoff win in 14 years, the Rockets' co-superstars caught fire at the same time in this series. When that happened, Harden and Paul got historically hot.
They combined for 37 points in the third, their most in a quarter as teammates. Harden scored 22 in the quarter -- or two more than the Timberwolves, the most in Rockets playoff history and the most by anybody since Golden State's Stephen Curry had 22 in a quarter against the San Antonio Spurs five years ago. Paul added 15 points in the quarter.
"You just saw their brilliance," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said.
We saw that brilliance frequently throughout the season, when Harden and Paul made skepticism about whether two ball-dominant playmakers could coexist seem silly. Perhaps those doubters started peaking their heads out around halftime Monday night, when the Rockets were clinging to a one-point lead, shooting only 38 percent from the floor through a couple of quarters.
"Some of you might want to check your tweets at halftime," D'Antoni joked.
D'Antoni also kidded that the key was his halftime adjustments, but the reality is the Rockets did what they always do. They spaced the floor and put the ball in the hands of two of the NBA's best creators. The big difference was that the shots started falling -- and just like that, Houston matched its point total from the first half in a matter of 12 minutes.
"A couple of looks that I had in the first half that I missed, I was going to shoot those same shots," said Harden, who finished with 36 points, with Paul adding 25. "Out of the first play of the half, coach drew up a play, and I was aggressive. Just had that mentality. Not only for myself, but Chris had that same mentality and the entire team. We're going to shoot the 3-ball well, we're going to be aggressive, we're going to attack."
Harden, who missed all seven of his shots from the floor in the first quarter, didn't hang his head when his easy floater missed to start the second half. He attacked again the next possession, getting a finger roll to fall.
If you blinked, you might have missed the Rockets' 11-0 run to open the half. Harden and Paul combined to score every point, taking turns dancing off the dribble, as they did so many times this season, when Houston was 44-5 when both of them played.
It didn't get much better for Minnesota the rest of the quarter. The Rockets were 14-of-23 from the floor, 9-of-13 from 3-point range and 13-of-13 from the line as they came within a point of matching the 1962 Los Angeles Lakers' playoff record for points in a quarter.
"We can be that team," said sixth man Eric Gordon, who had eight points in the quarter, including a 3 at the buzzer. "We just hadn't gotten into a flow throughout this whole series. It was good to see that."
It's a frightening sight for any team in the Rockets' path.