MINNEAPOLIS (TICKER) —Winning has become easy for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Maybe too easy.
The Timberwolves nearly blew a 29-point lead with a lackadaisical second half before holding on for their season-high seventh straight win, a 99-90 victory over the New York Knicks.
This one started the same way as the Wolves raced to a 31-14 lead after one quarter and built the advantage to 54-25 late in the second period. They still held a 75-55 lead entering the final 12 minutes but relaxed, almost too much.
The Knicks rallied behind Allan Houston, who scored 21 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter. His three-point play cut the deficit to 92-88 in the final minute.
The poor finish by the Wolves had nothing to do with coach Flip Saunders leaving early due to illness. But it was a cause for concern.
“It’s hard when you’re going into a fourth quarter up 20 points to keep your focus,” assistant Randy Wittman said. “We have to do a better job of it, obviously. One day it’s probably going to come up and bite you on the butt, and we’ll lose a game like that.”
“We’ve been falling into the habit of allowing teams to do that - not playing effectively and putting games away,” Szczerbiak said. “That’s something we’re going to have to continue to work on, but a win’s a win.”
Garnett had 22 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists for his league-leading 50th double-double. He helped Minnesota (40-21) become the fourth team to reach 40 wins and continues to stake his claim as an MVP candidate.
Sprewell managed just six points on 2-of-14 shooting - including 0-of-7 from the arc - for the Knicks, who have lost six straight road games.
“We have to be ready to start games, even when we’re not shooting well,” Knicks coach Don Chaney said. “In the second half, we got more aggressive - and we can win when we’re being aggressive. But when you’re playing this team, you have to be aggressive the whole time.”
New York’s last lead came at 4-2 before Minnesota put together a 21-3 run. Rasho Nesterovic scored eight of his 12 points in the surge and Szczerbiak added seven. The Knicks missed 10 straight shots, and a basket by Nesterovic gave the Wolves a 23-7 lead with 3:55 to go.
“KG’s doing a great job of looking for (Rasho),” Wittman said.
Szczerbiak scored five points in a 9-2 burst that opened the second period and gave the Wolves a 40-16 advantage. Kendall Gill’s layup opened Minnesota’s largest lead with 3:36 left in the second quarter.
“We’ve been doing that a lot here at home,” Szczerbiak said. “We’ve come out and played well in the first quarters, playing good defense, which has translated into some easy points at the other end.”
The Knicks trailed 56-32 at halftime but closed to 66-50 on a basket by Othella Harrington, who drew a foul on the play. But he missed the free throw, Marc Jackson had a three-point play at the other end and Szczerbiak nailed a jumper for a 71-50 lead with 2:33 left in the third quarter.
Shandon Anderson and Houston had 3-pointers to cap a 14-0 surge that made it 78-70 with 6:14 to play. Szczerbiak had jumpers around two free throws by Garnett to rebuild the lead to 14 points.
But Houston kept coming. He had three 3-pointers and a transition layup over the next four minutes to make it 90-83 with 52 seconds remaining.
“You worry about him anytime from the beginning,” Wittman said. “He had a 53-point game not too long ago.”
“You can’t wait until you get down and say that you’ll keep fighting,” said Houston, who made 10-of-24 shots, 5-of-8 3-pointers. “You have to start out fighting. That’s got to be our mentality.”
Jackson scored 11 points and Gill and Troy Hudson added 10 apiece for the Wolves, who shot 47.5 percent (38-of-80) and held a 47-39 rebounding edge.