Preview: Timberwolves vs. Rockets
Last spring on their way to an appearance in the Western Conference finals where they lost in seven games to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, the first step for the Houston Rockets was dispatching the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games.
Facing the eighth-seeded Timberwolves was a reward for a 65-win regular season but so far the first 22 games for the Rockets can be described as a series of stops and starts, resulting in an 11-11 record.
The Rockets hope they can get over .500 for good and they get their first chance Monday night when they visit the surging Minnesota Timberwolves.
Houston has yet to get more than two games over .500 although it is 10-6 in its last 16 games since losing five of its first six games. The Rockets reached 9-7 after a 126-124 win over the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 21 but followed it up by allowing 124 points during a four-game losing streak.
The Rockets rebounded impressively by getting double-double wins to sweep a back-to-back set. Houston followed up a 136-105 blowout at San Antonio on Friday by recording a 121-105 home win over the Chicago Bulls.
"We need to go show everybody who we need to be," Houston coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We may not be there yet but we're getting there. We just need to go get some wins."
James Harden scored 30 points Saturday while Chris Paul added 12 and a season-high 13 assists in his second game after sitting out three contests with a back injury. The Rockets are 10-4 in the games when Harden and Paul is in the lineup and 1-7 otherwise.
"When we are healthy, we're as good as anyone," Rockets guard Eric Gordon told reporters "And we are getting a little lucky, because everybody in the West is beating up on one another, and everybody's records are very close. So that really helps us a lot. Hopefully, by New Year's, we can be where we want to be, and that is (to be) one of the top-two teams record-wise. That's what we want to do, and that's where we want to be."
Saturday also marked the fifth time in the last eight games the Rockets topped 120 points. They reached 120 just once in the first 14 contests.
It also marked the sixth time in the last 10 games Houston shot at least 50 percent after doing so once in the first 12 games.
Houston enters its visit with a more complete roster since Gerald Green and Nene returned in the last two games. Green returned from a two-game absence due to right ankle soreness on Friday while Nene made his season debut after recovering from a right calf strain.
"It's just having a full roster," D'Antoni said. "Chris, Gerald, and Nene coming back in these last few games. Having a full roster and guys that can help each other out is key."
The Rockets are on a six-game winning streak against Minnesota and have won 14 of the last 15 regular-season meetings but the Timberwolves are in their best stretch of the season. Minnesota is 7-3 since trading Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia for Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
The Timberwolves (11-12) will attempt to get back to the .500 mark for the fifth time. Minnesota reached .500 for the first time since Oct. 31 with a resounding 128-89 blowout of San Antonio on Wednesday.
The Wolves, however, were unable to get over .500 when they took a 118-109 home loss to the Boston Celtics on Saturday. Despite shooting a respectable 45 percent, the Wolves committed 16 turnovers with six coming on traveling violations.
"I didn't think we played with great energy, and you need to play with great energy every night," Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Minnesota allowed its highest point total since trading Butler and before Saturday it allowed less than 100 points in four of its previous seven games.
"This is a reminder more of us understanding why did we get to this point?" Minnesota center Karl Anthony-Towns said. "We got to this point because we were executing our game plan almost flawlessly and playing the game with energy and defensive pride the whole game. We just kind of lacked it today. The moments we lacked it, Boston made sure to make us pay for it."
Derrick Rose scored 26 points for the Wolves Saturday and has led the team in scoring six times while getting at least 20 points 10 times. Towns added 20 and has reached 20 in seven games since the Butler trade.