Fully recovered from an injury of his own, Artest is playing—and talking— like the leader Houston hoped he would be.
Coming off his highest-scoring game of the season, Artest looks for a better outcome Sunday when the Rockets try to win their seventh straight against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Houston (37-22) acquired Artest via trade in the offseason, looking for another go-to player to play alongside the injury-prone McGrady and Yao Ming. Artest, though, missed 13 games because of ankle problems.
With McGrady now out for the season following microfracture surgery on his left knee, Artest has started the last seven games, averaging 21.1 points. He scored a season-high 32 Saturday in a 105-102 loss at Chicago which snapped the team’s six-game winning streak.
After winning the previous six games by an average of 14.8 points, the Rockets blew a 17-point lead Saturday with under six minutes remaining. Artest had a potential game-tying shot at the buzzer blocked and had to be escorted off the court by teammate Dikembe Mutombo after arguing for a foul.
“I take the blame for the loss,” said Artest, who was 13-of-24 from the field, connecting on a career-high six 3-pointers. “I could have helped us sustain the lead we had.”
The Rockets had been looking to build off their 6-0 homestand, but instead dropped their fourth straight on the road. Houston, which has lost those four games by an average of 8.0 points, has dropped 10 of its last 13 on the road overall.
The Rockets, though, haven’t had much trouble at the Target Center against the Timberwolves, however, winning their last two and six of their last nine visits there, including a 109-102 victory on Dec. 20.
Minnesota (18-40) has lost five straight overall and eight in a row at home following Friday’s 102-82 defeat to Portland. Mike Miller and Craig Smith each scored 16 points while second-leading scorer Randy Foye struggled for the second straight game and finished with 13. The Timberwolves, who are without leading scorer Al Jefferson for the season (torn ACL), had scored 100 points in the previous seven games.
“That was our worst game in I don’t know how long,” coach Kevin McHale said. “We couldn’t muster any energy, couldn’t get any offensive flow going.”
The 82 points were their fewest since scoring a season-low 70 against Cleveland on Dec. 17. Foye is 9-for-30 from the field his last two games after averaging 24.5 points on 48.6 percent shooting his previous six games.
Minnesota is winless at home since a 109-108 overtime victory over the Bulls on Jan. 25, and lost its last two at the Target Center by a combined 37 points.
Houston has won six straight over Minnesota by an average of 16.7 points, including two victories this season. Artest has averaged 19.7 points in his last three games at the Target Center.