It took a little while, but the ‘Big Three’ of the Minnesota Timberwolves is playing the way general manager Kevin McHale envisioned.
The Midwest Division-leading Timberwolves look for their sixth straight win when they visit the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center.
For years, Kevin Garnett was the face of the franchise, its leader without a strong supporting cast. But McHale’s offseason addition of two stars in Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell has left Garnett with more flexibility, and fewer double teams.
The formula has paid off.
A 100-93 victory over San Antonio on Wednesday propelled Minnesota past the defending NBA champion Spurs into first place in the division.
“One of us has to step up,” Cassell said. “It’s either going to be me or Spree when KG is on the bench.”
It was Cassell’s turn Wednesday, as he scored 23 of his 33 points in the second half, including eight straight late in the fourth quarter. Sprewell added 23 while the Timberwolves played most of the fourth quarter without Garnett, who was in foul trouble.
“All three of them have given us great energy and have really played well together,” McHale said.
During his team’s five-game win streak, Cassell is averaging 22.2 points and 7.4 assists. The 11-year veteran, who’s never averaged 20 points for a season, is scoring 20.8 per game in 2002-03.
“Any doubts about Sam Cassell making the All-Star team should be cleared up,” Minnesota coach Flip Saunders. “He was on fire at times it was like he was playing X-Box.”
The Rockets, meanwhile, remained 4 1/2 games behind Minnesota in the division after their 95-80 win at Boston on Wednesday.
Yao Ming had 21 points and 15 rebounds for his 16th double-double of the season and Cuttino Mobley led the Rockets with 24 points. It was the fourth straight game Houston scored 90 or more points—all since the Rockets tied a franchise low for points in an 85-66 loss to Detroit on Jan. 7.
Yao’s presence in the post helped the Rockets to shoot 11-of-22 from 3-point range.
“It opens up everything. We need him to be that dominant, whether it’s shooting his jump shot, setting picks or dumping the ball inside,” Rockets guard Steve Francis said.
On Thursday, the Rockets signed 16-year veteran guard Mark Jackson to a contract. Jackson, who along with John Stockton are the only players in NBA history with 10,000 assists, played under current Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy with the New York Knicks.
STANDINGS (through Jan. 15): Timberwolves - 1st place, Midwest Division. Rockets - 3rd place (tied), 4 1/2 GB, Midwest Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Timberwolves - Garnett, 24.5 ppg and 14.1 rpg; Cassell, 7.5 apg. Rockets - Francis, 16.9 ppg and 5.8 apg; Yao, 9.1 rpg.
SEASON SERIES: Timberwolves, 1-0.
LAST MEETING: Dec. 16; Timberwolves, 92-75. At Minnesota, Cassell scored 25 points and Garnett had 19 and 13 rebounds as the Timberwolves improved to an NBA-best 10-4 on the road.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Timberwolves - 14-6 on the road; Rockets - 12-5 at home.