James Harden stepped back about six feet behind the 3-point line as the shot-clock was winding down. Josh Okogie was expecting it, and followed Harden step for step. Okogie rose as Harden rose and his hand met nothing but the ball, sending it back down to the floor while fans at Target Center rose into the air.
It was an electrifying moment from the rookie that sent a message in the Wolves 121-111 victory: Harden may be the NBA’s best scorer, but the Wolves weren’t about to make it easy for him.
Harden got his with 42 points to extend his streak of games with 30 or more points to 31, but the Wolves came away with an emotional victory to head into the All-Star break on an upswing after a downtrodden and distressing last few weeks.
Okogie and Luol Deng provided the defense on Harden who had 42 points on 34 shot attempts, but the Wolves didn’t allow the rest of the Rockets to beat them and scored enough points to overcome 3-point happy Houston. Karl-Anthony Towns had 25 while Jeff Teague had his best game in a long time for the Wolves with 27 points on 11 of 16 shooting and 12 assists.
The Wolves opened an early lead in the first quarter as Dario Saric, who was making his second consecutive start, scored 10 quick points while Josh Okogie provided some effective early defense on Harden, who was just 1 of 4 in the first quarter. The Wolves led 20 to 14 before Houston began doing what it does best – making threes. With Harden struggling to get going, his teammates were able to provide support. Gerald Green came off the bench and knocked down a pair of threes while P.J. Tucker and Iman Shumpert each hit one. By the end of the first quarter, the Rockets had re-taken the lead 29-28.
Harden finally got going in the second quarter, tallying 15 points. The Wolves did a commendable job of keeping him off the free throw line – he had just three attempts – but Harden nailed a couple of his patented step-back 3-pointers and found room around the rim. It looked like the Rockets might begin pulling away following another Tucker triple from the corner as they 51-44 with 4:36 remaining in the half, but the Wolves mounted a run, scoring the next six points before Harden helped Houston extend it to 58-52 headed into the locker room. For the half, the Wolves shot 51 percent, better than Houston’s 43, but the Rockets hit 9 of 27 from 3-point range while the Wolves were just 1 of 6 from deep.
It was the third quarter when Okogie added to his personal highlight reel, picking Harden’s pocket on one play then stuffing Harden on a step-back 3-pointer as the shot clock was expiring, a Sportscenter-worthy play that instantly brought the Target Center crowd to its feet. He sandwiched those plays around a 3-pointer that gave the Wolves a 3-point edge. The Wolves pushed that lead to 85-76, their largest of the night at that point, after a 3-point play from Derrick Rose.
With Okogie on the bench Deng took over defense on Harden early in the fourth while the Wolves offense kept pace. Harden caught fire late in the fourth, hitting three consecutive threes, but the Wolves answered. Teague hit a 3 and a running shot. Okogie got a dunk, then Harden airballed one from deep, forcing applause and laughter from the crowd.
Those reaction have been in short supply of late when cheering for this team.