MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—The Houston Rockets finally showed some scrap, and their All-Star showed off his skills at the end.
McGrady, who went 13-for-13 at the free-throw line, grabbed eight rebounds and had 13 points in the fourth quarter. He hit a long jumper over Trenton Hassell with 2:35 remaining to put Houston up for good, 85-84, after trailing most of the night.
“It’s up to a team’s best player to make big plays down the stretch of games,” McGrady said. “Either offensively or defensively, the best players have to make plays to win games.”
He did it both ways.
Then Hassell’s risky crosscourt pass was stolen by McGrady on the following possession to feed Alston for another layup and seal a much-needed victory for the Rockets, who had lost four of their previous five.
“That’s exactly what the game was about, hanging in there,” Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “We went through some bad stretches, just like they did. We found a way.”
With Hassell and a host of others constantly smothering McGrady, defending was certainly not the Wolves’ problem. Coach Dwane Casey has stressed that from the start, and there has been noticeable improvement on that end of the floor.
But with a handful of new players trying to find their role and Szczerbiak trying to find his shot, Minnesota is clearly not comfortable yet on offense.
“We’re getting good looks,” Szczerbiak said. “We’re just not making them.”
The Wolves shot 48.3 percent from the field in the second half, but they looked disorganized on their final critical possessions and didn’t score between Garnett’s jumper with 3:52 left and Szczerbiak’s meaningless layup with 11.9 seconds remaining.
“We’re going to have a great chance if our offense does catch up,” Casey said.
McGrady returned from a bout with back spasms to score 30 of his 35 points in the second half of a win at New Jersey on Saturday. He was held to 14 points the next night in a 20-point loss at Boston.
The first half wasn’t so smooth for McGrady, who shot only 1-for-6 and had four turnovers over the first 24 minutes. But he came through when his team needed him most.
“He’ll work his way into shape,” Van Gundy said.
Houston was without McGrady for three games, but the effort had been lethargic most of the season. Asked before tipoff for his thoughts on the NBA’s installation of the daily, three-player inactive list, Van Gundy quipped, “We’ve been a team on the inactive list. It hasn’t been three guys. It’s been 15.”
Though still far from perfect, this was certainly a better performance for a team that Van Gundy called “Rockets gone wild” last week.
“He’s concerned about our fight and our intensity and our effort,” said Alston, who finished with 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting including the two late layups. “I always say, ‘It starts with me.”’
The Wolves, who lost at home for the first time in four tries, wanted to push the ball and exploit Houston’s lack of speed, but they seemed to get bogged down by their opponent’s slow pace at times and never could break away.
Though the Rockets never led in the first half, they tied it at 39 on a three-point play by Yao with 3:13 left before the break.
But Minnesota closed the second quarter with an 8-0 run, and Houston showed some of the sloppiness that has hounded the Rockets during this frustrating start to the season. McGrady had three of his team’s five turnovers during that stretch, the first coming on a risky pass that was intercepted by Hassell at midcourt and taken the other way for a three-point play when McGrady fouled him during a layup.
Garnett finished the spurt with a shot-clock beating 21-footer, giving the Wolves a 47-39 lead.
Announced attendance was 14,091. The Wolves entered the game ranked second-to-last in the league with an average of 14,594. … Houston rookie Luther Head, who got 29 minutes in Saturday’s game against New Jersey, didn’t play.