Jeff Teague scored 23 points and Andrew Wiggins pitched in 20 points with another four 3-pointers, helping the Timberwolves match the fire-away Rockets from behind the arc and cruise down the stretch behind a 50 percent shooting performance.
Derrick Rose added 17 points off the bench for the Wolves, who will try to even the series with a win in Game 4 on Monday night.
James Harden led the way with 29 points, but Chris Paul fouled out with 17 points and the Rockets went just 15 for 41 from 3-point range.
The Rockets made four 3-pointers on their last seven possessions of the first half to turn an 11-point deficit to just one in less than 3½ minutes up until the break. Butler twisted his left ankle during that stretch, causing some brief anxiety in the arena. He didn’t require, or accept, any medical attention and returned from the intermission without any hint that he was hurt.
Taj Gibson hounded Harden and forced an airballed 3-pointer, prompting the apex of the noise throughout the night with the Wolves ahead 77-70. Towns powered his way past Ryan Anderson for a layup and a three-point play with 1:57 left in the third quarter, pushing the lead to 10 points, and he flexed his biceps to the crowd after the whistle as he walked like King Kong to the corner of the court in celebration.
The Wolves closed that period on a 26-14 run and produced spurts of 15-3 and 11-2 in the fourth quarter to let loose as their plan to push a faster pace played out perfectly against a Rockets team that lost some energy in the venue shift north.
Harden, who had 44 points in Game 1 but lost his rainbow jumper in Game 2 and finished only 2 for 18 from the floor for 12 points, wasn’t a whole lot sharper in Game 3. He went 9 for 21, including 3 for 8 from 3-point range.
Instead, a Wolves team that finished last in the NBA in 3-pointers made during the regular season, posted the second-highest total of 2017-18 while launching their way to a 15-for-27 performance.
For the first time since May 29, 2004, the fifth game of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA playoffs descended on downtown Minneapolis. The shine of this long-awaited return to relevance by the 29-year-old franchise was dulled a bit by the team’s fade down the stretch to finish eighth in the conference and draw the most daunting matchup available against a Rockets team that won all four regular season games by an average of 16 points and took the first two games of this series in Houston.
The occasion was still special, though, with the memory of late coach and executive Flip Saunders not far from the minds of the Target Center regulars. The game sold out, naturally, and the crowd matched the moment to make the arena louder than it had been all season.
After totaling only 13 points over the first two games and being challenged to be more aggressive by everyone from TNT analyst Charles Barkley to Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, Towns was constantly double-teamed by the switch-heavy Rockets and didn’t attempt a shot in the first quarter. The 7-footer got his energy going soon after that, though, with an emphatic dunk on Chris Capela after peeling away from the post-up to snag a high pass from Teague.
Rose, one of three former Chicago Bulls stalwarts under Thibodeau with Butler and Gibson who were brought in to bring the edge and experience the cornerstones Towns and Wiggins are lacking, made his presence obvious the entire time he was in the game.
He hit a step-back jumper to give the Wolves a 46-36 lead that was their largest of the series to that point, and he had 10 points in nine minutes before halftime.
Rockets: Anderson returned to action for the first time in seven games due to a sprained left ankle and finished with 12 points. The Rockets were 18-1 during the regular season when he made at least three 3-point shots. … During the regular season, Houston won 11 games in which it trailed by double digits, including at Minnesota on Feb. 13 when the deficit reached 13 points in the third quarter of a 126-108 victory.
Timberwolves: Minnesota had 29 assists on 45 made field goals, with only seven turnovers. … Rose has 42 points in the series on 19-for-39 shooting in 62 minutes.
Game 4 on Monday night.