HOUSTON -- The critics James Harden claims not to hear won't be hushed by a spectacular performance in the series opener of the first round. For Harden, now more than ever, the playoffs are about how he finishes, not how he starts.
And the Rockets, record-setting 3-point gunners whose long-range touch (outside of Harden) failed them Sunday night at the Toyota Center, needed that kind of performance from their superstar -- a player who infamously no-showed as Houston's season ended on its home court last May.
Harden torched the Timberwolves for 44 points on 15-of-26 shooting, including 7-of-12 from 3-point range. The rest of the Rockets made only 3 of 25 3-point attempts -- a rare 12 percent brickfest for a team that broke its own year-old record for 3s made in a season -- but Harden was simply too good to let eighth-seeded Minnesota start the series by sneaking out an upset.
"Another day for James," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said of the NBA's season scoring leader. "He's done it all year. He really stepped up. We were struggling to make shots, struggling to really have any kind of rhythm of play, and James put us on his back. He's been doing it for a while now."
Time after time, "The Beard" hit big shots when momentum seemed to be swaying to Minnesota's side. Soon after the Timberwolves took a lead midway through the fourth quarter, Harden re-entered the game and immediately went on a do-it-himself 7-0 run, hitting a floater off the glass, driving for a layup and drilling a pull-up 3 in transition.
At that point, after Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau called timeout, Harden strutted down the center of the court and pointed to the hardwood as if to remind everyone that this is his house.
That transition 3 was the rare occasion when the Timberwolves made a defensive miscue to give Harden an easy look. Most of the 3s he made were contested stepbacks, the unstoppable shot that vaulted the league's most lethal isolation scorer to another level this season. When Minnesota crowded Harden enough to take that away, he dominated on drives, feeding center Clint Capela for several dunks in the first half and feasting on layups in the second.
"He's an MVP candidate and you know why," Timberwolves power forward Taj Gibson said. "Every time the game was 'mano y mano' and they were in a tight spot, he just took over the game. He made some tough shots. He just played phenomenal tonight. We were trying to throw everything at him."
Harden's brilliance, highlighted by his 13 points in the fourth quarter, allowed Houston to overcome a rather forgettable Rockets playoff debut by Chris Paul. Paul uncharacteristically had more turnovers (six) than assists (four) and finished with only 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Paul is the co-star Harden helped recruit last summer, a pairing that led the Rockets to a franchise-record 65-win regular season to claim the top overall seed in the playoffs. But Sunday night, Paul's six turnovers tied for his second most in a postseason game (he had eight against the San Antonio Spurs in 2012).
Paul's final blunder -- an unnecessary airmailed pass out of bounds with 8.7 seconds left -- could have really bitten the Rockets. But Jimmy Butler, playing with a black wrap on his sore right wrist, airballed a tightly contested 3 that could have tied the score, completing his 4-of-11 shooting night.
"I looked like I was with the 'Bad News Bears,'" Paul said, shaking his head at the uncharacteristic turnovers. "But at the end of the day, it's all about getting the win."
It also helped Houston's cause that Minnesota's other All-Star, center Karl-Anthony Towns, had the kind of awful playoff debut that will invite a lot of criticism during the three long days before Game 2. Towns was oddly an afterthought offensively, scoring only eight points on 3-of-9 shooting.
"I've got to be better on both sides of the basketball [court]," Towns said.
At the minimum, Towns can't get dominated in the matchup of two of the league's elite young big men if Minnesota has any hope of making this series competitive. Capela had 24 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds by halftime -- numbers nobody had posted in a playoff half since Kevin Durant four years ago -- flying all over the floor and getting spoon fed by Harden, who finished with eight assists.
Harden never even watched the film of that Game 6 stinker against the Spurs that ended his season a year ago. He certainly has no interest in revisiting it now, not when he has the opportunity to make the kind of history that would make any previous playoff failures distant memories.
The present offers too precious of an opportunity, by far his best opportunity, to chase a championship since becoming the face of Houston's franchise. Harden embraces the burden that comes along with Houston's regular-season success, repeatedly saying there's nothing to celebrate until the Rockets win an NBA title.
The first step in that journey featured Harden at his best. He forced nothing but, in the words of Butler, "got whatever he wanted in that game." On an off night shooting for most of his teammates, Harden was in complete control, comfortable under the playoff pressure.
"If you have that aggressive mindset, good things will happen," Harden said. "If they gave me space enough to get my shot off, I shot it. If they were pressuring me enough to get by them to make a play for myself or somebody else, then I did that. Whether it's tonight, whether it's 82 regular-season games, I'm going to do the same thing."
The Rockets need Harden to do it 15 more times.