The team with the league-leading FG% defense completely shut down the team with the league-leading FG% offense Saturday as the Rockets blasted past the Timberwolves 95-76 Saturday afternoon before a sellout crowd in Houston and a national TV audience.
The win ups the Rockets mark to 23-16, just 3.5 games back of the division-leading Wolves. The Rockets came in to the game with a 3-7 record against Midwest division opponents.
Dare I say it, the Rockets showed today how scary of a first-round opponent they could be in the playoffs. Yes, they are increibly inconsistent, which isn't good for the postseason, but a team that plays tenacious defense and runs consistently half-court sets could spell trouble for some of the West's top dogs.
As for this game, it was a complete dismantling of Minnesota, which was coming off a huge win over the Spurs. The Rockets defense just left them clueless. Houston held them to 13 first quarter points, all scored by Latrell Sprewell and Kevin Garnett. In fact, it wasn't until late in the third quarter that any Timberwolf player outside of their Big Three (Garnett, Sprewell and former Rocket Sam Cassell) scored at all.
22 points, 15 boards, 2 blocks and more signs that perhaps he's starting to get what Van Gundy has been trying to pound in to him: You must be aggressive.
26 first-half points and they were lucky to get that much. After the Wolves rolled over the Rockets 92-75 a month ago, it was Houston's turn to dish out the embarrassment ... only this one was on national TV.
By halftime, the Rockets led 45-26 and had held Minnesota to 29.3% shooting.
Yao Ming continued his big surge, scoring 22 points on 9-16 shooting to go along with 15 boards and a pair of blocks. He did toss up a couple of airballs from the outside, but he really had a big game. On one play late, Yao was just inside the three-point line, spun around his man and put up a jumper. It was off, but Yao snared the board, went right to the hoop up over Garnett, got the bucket and the foul.
I'm stunned how quickly things have turned around for Yao. After an embarrassing effort against the Celtics when it looked like he had entered the dreaded doghouse of Jeff Van Gundy, Yao has responded with a three-game average of 21.3 points on 64.1% shooting, 13.7 boards and 2.7 blocks.
Steve Francis put up terrific numbers in this one, no doubt: 19 points, 8 boards, 7 assists and a pair of steals. He also shot fewer times than Yao and Cuttino Mobley, a good sign since against the better teams Steve usually tries to take it upon himself. However, he also turned it over 6 times, and some of them were real head scratchers.
Another thing that frustrated me about Francis was after he and Garnett picked up double technicals in the fourth, Steve got the ball and sprinted up the floor for an ill-advised driving layup attempt (from about 6-7 feet out) against 2 Wolves players, including Garnett.
It was a sign, to me, that Steve let it get personal and didn't think about the team at the time. The Wolves were nailing triples like mad in the fourth and the Rockets needed to milk clock and play smart while holding their big lead.
Mobley did not shoot well in this one, going 6-19 from the floor and missing 5 of his 6 threes. Still, Mobley had 5 assists to go with a pair of steals and blocks and turned it over just once.
Usually the power forward matchup is lopsided against the Wolves, but not today. Houston held Garnett to 7-20 shooting, finishing with 19 points and just 7 boards.
Meanwhile, Kelvin Cato came back from a sprained ankle to hit 5-7 shots for 10 points and 10 boards (4 offensive), and threw down two nasty alleyoop passes from Francis. Maurice Taylor came off the bench and was big against Garnett, scoring 16 points.
Mark this one down as up to now this has been one of the few very enjoyable Rocket games to watch. Despite some trouble with full-court pressure in the fourth, the Rockets controlled it from the get-go, building a 30-point lead and cruising to the victory.