NBA: James Harden hits heights as Houston Rockets soar over Minnesota Timberwolves

The Houston Rockets' James Harden tips the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves' Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns during their first-round game of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at the Target Center in Minneapolis on April 23, 2018.
The Houston Rockets' James Harden tips the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves' Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns during their first-round game of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at the Target Center in Minneapolis on April 23, 2018.PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - James Harden scored 36 points as the Houston Rockets moved to the brink of a Western Conference first-round play-off series victory with a 119-100 rout of the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday (April 23).

Harden underscored his status as front-runner for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award after leading a stunning third-quarter performance that saw the Rockets explode for an astonishing 50 points.

That devastating burst of scoring - a franchise record - included 22 points from Harden as the Rockets transformed what had been a one-point contest at half-time into a comfortable victory.

"We hit the switch that we've been trying to hit since the beginning of the play-offs, at both ends of the court," a satisfied Harden said afterwards.

"It's pretty scary what we're capable of when we're locked in defensively like that and when we get rolling offensively."

The win gave Houston a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, giving the Western Conference leaders a chance to book their place in the second round of the play-offs with a victory at home in Game 5 on Wednesday.

The smart money will be on Houston to wrap up the series quickly after Monday's demolition job at Minnesota's Target Centre arena.

"It was a great (third) quarter for us," Harden said. "It gave us the belief. Now we go back to the crib and try to finish it off."

While Harden's virtuoso third-quarter performance ultimately decided the contest, the Rockets will also take heart from an offensive display that saw five players finish with double-digit points tallies.

Point guard Chris Paul weighed in with 25 points - including 15 in the lop-sided third quarter - while Eric Gordon had 18 and Trevor Ariza 15.

Centre Clint Capela finished with 14 points, and also pulled down 17 rebounds during his 31 minutes on court.

The Timberwolves' scoring was led by Karl-Anthony Towns with 22 points, while Jimmy Butler (19) and Derrick Rose (17) also made significant contributions.

In Monday's other game, the Utah Jazz moved to within one win of clinching their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder with a convincing 113-96 win in Salt Lake City.

Rookie star Donovan Mitchell made the decisive contribution for Utah with 33 points as Russell Westbrook and Paul George's Thunder came unstuck.

Utah now lead 3-1 heading into Game 5 in Oklahoma City on Wednesday.

All five Utah starters made double figures as the Jazz overturned a 30-24 first-quarter deficit to tilt the contest in their favour in the second and third periods, outscoring the Thunder 66-43.

George led the scoring for Oklahoma City with 32 points while Westbrook had 23 points and 14 rebounds. Carmelo Anthony finished with 11 points on a night when the Thunder's offence was effectively contained.