Timberwolves 92, Rockets 75

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Sam Cassell is doing what the Minnesota Timberwolves envisioned when they traded for him in the offseason: Shouldering a chunk of the load with Kevin Garnett.

Cassell scored 25 points and Garnett had 19 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Timberwolves past the struggling Houston Rockets 92-75 on Tuesday night.

Latrell Sprewell added 14 points for the Timberwolves, who’ve won three straight and improved to 6-1 in December. It was one of the best performances this season by the injury-plagued Wolves, who had a sluggish first month despite a lineup bolstered by a series of offseason additions.

Minnesota, which is an NBA-best 10-4 on the road, improved to 5-5 at home.

“We haven’t given our fans anything to see,” coach Flip Saunders said. “Tonight was the first night.”

Steve Francis led Houston, which dropped its third straight, with 16 points.

Minnesota used a 16-4 run to take a 75-49 lead with 1:28 to go in the third quarter. Garnett capped the run with a flurry, making an impressive, one-handed layup off an alley-oop pass from Keith McLeod that brought the crowd to its feet.

Garnett blocked Jim Jackson’s jumper on Houston’s next possession before going to the bench to a standing ovation.

Despite being thin in the middle, the Wolves outscored the Rockets 32-24 in the paint thanks to some crisp ball movement.

Cassell, who had six assists, went 11-for-15 from the floor in leading the Timberwolves in scoring for the third straight game.

“That’s how he’s played the last 11, 12 games,” Saunders said.

Garnett, Cassell and Sprewell have accounted for 1,461 of Minnesota’s 2,244 points (65.1 percent) this season.

The Wolves are still without swingman Wally Szczerbiak, point guard Troy Hudson and starting center Michael Olowokandi. Last year, Garnett was forced to shoulder a huge load with another injury-depleted lineup. But he’s getting adequate help this time around.

“(Cassell) is making it a lot easier on me,” Garnett said.

The Rockets, meanwhile, continued their struggles from the field, going 28-for-72. Houston entered the game 26th in the league in scoring and averaging 70 points in its previous two losses to San Antonio.

Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and the players were visibly frustrated afterward.

“There’s nothing I can say,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to comment on anything because we were noncompetitive after the first five or six minutes.”

Said Francis: “This is definitely a game which we wish we could take back.”

Jackson had 12 points for Houston. Eric Piatkowski added 11 and Yao Ming and Maurice Taylor each had 10.

Minnesota started cold and didn’t get a field goal until Oliver Miller tipped in Garnett’s miss with 7:42 left in the first quarter.

Houston led 17-12 early in the game but fell behind quickly as Sprewell, who scored nine of his points in the first half, fueled a Minnesota run. Gary Trent hit two free throws and Cassell added a 3-pointer to give the Wolves a 22-19 lead, and the Rockets never led again.

Houston managed only 34 points by halftime on 15-for-40 shooting.

“We came out ready to play and then we had a major drop-off when the ballwasn’t going in the basket,” Taylor said.

Notes

The Rockets have failed to score 100 points in their last 10 trips to Target Center. … Francis’ five assists give him 2,002 for his career. … Miller, who finished with six points in seven minutes, played his first home game since the Wolves signed him last week to take Olowokandi’s spot on the roster. He drew an ovation when he entered the game for the first time, but the loudest cheers came when he hit a driving layup over Yao late in the secondquarter.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Houston
S. Francis S. Francis
6-15,  16 Pts
8 Rebs, 5 Assists
 Minnesota
K. Garnett K. Garnett
8-19,  19 Pts
13 Rebs, 6 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists