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Harden scores 44 as Rockets edge Wolves

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler (23) dribbles the ball as Houston Rockets center Nene Hilario (42) defends during the second quarter in game one of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on Sunday, April 15, at Toyota Center in Houston. Troy Taormina / USA TODAY Sports1 / 3
Apr 15, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after scoring as Minnesota Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica (8) looks on during the third quarter in game one of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports2 / 3
Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) shoot the ball over Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) during the second quarter in game one of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center on Sunday, April 15, in Houston. Troy Taormina / USA TODAY Sports3 / 3

HOUSTON — 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, April 15.

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 game 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 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 set the Timberwolves back on an offensive path. 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 the Rockets would relinquish.

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 Wednesday night at Houston's Toyota Center.

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