Rockets 112, Timberwolves 109

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—The Houston Rockets found their league-leading defense just in time to gain a rare road victory against one of the best teams in the West.

Yao Ming scored 27 points, Steve Francis added 25 and the Rockets withstood two last-second shot attempts by Minnesota to outlast the Timberwolves 112-109 Friday night.

“The last couple games we weren’t really able to get it going or get into a rhythm defensively,” said Francis, who scored 14 points in the second half. “Tonight, we just contested harder late in the game.”

“From the beginning of the game we played great offense, but coach was continually getting on us about our defense,” Yao said through an interpreter.

The Rockets entered the game ranked first in opponent field goal percentage (.402), but had faltered defensively in losing two straight. On Friday, they held Minnesota to 40 percent shooting in the fourth quarter to win for the third time in 16 Western Conference road games.

“We came into a tough place against a tough team and dug out a big win for us,” said Clarence Weatherspoon, who scored 11 points and defended Kevin Garnett down the stretch.

Minnesota had a chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds left, but Troy Hudson’s 3-pointer hit the front of the rim. The Timberwolves got a second chance with 3.1 seconds left after Adrian Griffin missed two free throws, but Garnett’s straightaway 3-point attempt was way off.

“We got what we wanted, we just missed the shots,” said Sam Cassell, who had 25 points and 13 rebounds for Minnesota. “That’s how the game goes.”

“That’s playoff basketball,” said Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders.

Neither Hudson nor Garnett got clean looks at the basket as Rockets’ defenders played them tight down the stretch.

“We just didn’t want to give them a good look on a three,” said Weatherspoon, who was all over Garnett on the final shot.

Cuttino Mobley had 18 points and Maurice Taylor added 16 off the bench for Houston, which had lost two straight overall and four in a row on the road.

Garnett had 32 points and 18 rebounds and Michael Olowokandi had 12 points and seven rebounds for Minnesota. The Timberwolves lost for just the third time in 12 games.

“That’s another example of how hard the West is and how competitive it is,” Garnett said. “Guys on the bottom of the list could easily be at the top of the list.”

If the playoffs started today, Minnesota would be the second seed in the Western Conference and host No. 7 Houston. The Rockets have beaten the Wolves two out of three games this season.

“Once April 18 hits, if this is the team we’re matched up against, we’re just going to prepare for them and be ready,” Francis said.

In the fourth quarter, Francis dunked an alley-oop pass from Mobley and hit a 3-pointer on the next possession to cap a 17-7 run and give the Rockets a 101-96 lead with 5:33 left.

Houston held a 108-102 lead with 2:09 remaining before Garnett scored on a three-point play and Sprewell hit two foul shots to make it 108-107.

Weatherspoon’s jumper extended the lead to 110-107, and his two free throws made it 112-107 with 44.4 seconds left.

Garnett’s bank shot on the next possession made it 112-109, and Mobley missed a 3-point attempt to set up the dramatic finish.

Minnesota extended its one-point halftime lead to 89-84 by the end of the third. But despite shooting over 60 percent to that point, the Wolves could not pull away.

The Rockets made five 3-pointers in the first quarter, including two each from Francis and Mobley, to jump out to a 36-28 lead. The Timberwolves scored eight unanswered points at the start of the second quarter to get back into the game.

Houston made its first 19 free-throw attempts and finished 26-for-29.

Francis received a technical foul in the first quarter for hanging on the rim and he got a second technical, along with Hudson, for taunting. Because thefirst technical was not unsportsmanlike, Francis stayed in the game.

Notes

Minnesota entered the game ranked first in the league in field goal percentage (.469) … Minnesota fell to 18-3 when scoring at least 100 points. … Houston had not reached the 100-point mark in its previous 10 games at Target Center. … The Rockets had just two fast-break points. … Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy talked about Garnett’s MVP candidacy before and after the game: “He’s been MVP-caliber the last three or four years,” Van Gundy said.“Last year you could have made a case for him, like this year.”

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Houston
S. Francis S. Francis
8-15,  25 Pts
6 Rebs, 6 Assists
 Minnesota
K. Garnett K. Garnett
13-24,  32 Pts
18 Rebs, 3 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists