Usually when the Rockets play the Minnesota Timberwolves, they have two problems.
Kevin Garnett and Terrell Brandon.
Garnett scored at will early, totalling 37 points, while Brandon hit the game-winning jumper with 2.4 seconds left, breaking an 88 all tie and giving Minnesota a 90-88 win in the Compaq Center.
The loss is the first of the young season for the Rockets (2-1) while Minnesota is tops in the Midwest at 3-0.
The Rockets got off a shot at the buzzer -- a Glen Rice three-point attempt -- but it hit back iron as the horn sounded.
It's amazing the Rockets were this close to begin with. They shot 24% from the field in the first 15 minutes of the contest and 33% total for the first half. Minnesota ran a tough zone, with Brandon, Chauncey Billups and Wally Szczerbiak guarding top of the key and a very tall triangle camped out underneath of KG, Joe Smith and Radoslav Nesterovic (with Gary Trent and Loren Woods coming off the bench). The Rockets had a very tough time penetrating and getting good shots. The Wolves led by 14 points in the second quarter and the Rockets, even when they did get good shots, couldn't pitch a dime in to a King Kong-sized wishing well without it rimming out.
That's when Eddie Griffin stepped up.
Griffin was a big spark midway through the second quarter, scoring 9 of his 11 points in a 3-4 minute span. It was by far the rookie's best game of the first three, though he finished just 4-11 from the field. He was assigned the unenviable task of guarding Garnett at times, and showed flashes on the defensive side.
But the player who stepped up shooting-wise for the Rockets was Cuttino Mobley. Mobley was 9-14 from the field for 24 points to lead the Rockets, and is shooting over 48% in the first three games. Compare that to Steve Francis (20 points, 10 boards, 7-19 from the floor), who is shooting just over 38% (stats). Mobley also had a very nice slam off a Francis feed with 14.6 seconds left that tied the game.
Still, both Francis and Mobley made mistakes down the stretch, and the Rockets as a whole blew several opportunities to turn this one in to a "W".
And Glen Rice simply does not have his stroke back.
You hope it's a case where Rice is just not "hot" at the moment, but he doesn't look to be in very good shape, doesn't have his legs underneath him and isn't getting many shots in the offense. And when he does get them, he's not making them (1-9 from long range). Both he and Walt Williams made Matt Bullard, now with Charlotte, expendable, and neither is knocking down the three. This doesn't look to be the same guy who torched us for years with Miami, Charlotte and LA, but it's still too early to tell.
If you're looking for positives though on top of Griffin's encouraging performance, how about Kevin Willis' work on the boards? Dude is a hoss... he only shot 4-12, but tore down 17 boards in 26 minutes of play, subbing for Kelvin Cato (9 points, 6 boards).
A loss is a loss, but the Rockets had some positives they can try to build on from here. They shot better in the second half and overall hit 8-14 from beyond the arc. Griffin seemed to get over his first-game jitters, Willis attacked glass, Mobley shot well and things can only get better with Rice. If this team can get a groove going and knock down some shots, they'll be tough to beat...
... but in the first three games, they've had serious problems putting the ball in the hole.
The Rockets' interior defense was exposed badly to start the game. Kevin Garnett would get incredible position and score easily. When Terrell Brandon hit a baseline jumper, Minnesota was up 8-2. The Rockets in fact didn't get their first field goal until the 8:13 mark when Steve Francis converted a three-point play and the team was 1 for their first 8 shots.
Francis and Mobley hit back to back threes later in the quarter, but Garnett however was unstoppable. When he scored his 15th point in the quarter, the TWolves were up 23-15. Minnesota closed on a 6-0 run to make it 29-17 after one.
The Rockets shot just under 30% for the quarter.
It got worse. After a pair of misses by Kevin Willis, the Rockets were officially shooting 24% for the game, and trailing 31-18. Eddie Griffin broke the mold with a long triple.
Chauncey Billups nailed back to back threes, putting the 'Pups up 39-25, but Griffin delivered a wake up call -- he countered with another three, trimming the deficit to 11. Francis found him streaking in the lane for a double fisted hammer slam, then Griff nailed a baseline 20-footer and the Rockets were within 9.
When Francis found Cato for a jaw-popping alleyoop in transition, the Rockets were within 41-34 and Flip Saunders had to call timeout.
Garnett and Sczcerbiak each hit long jumpers to put Minnesota back up 10, 45-35.
The Rockets shot a horrid 33% in the first half, yet only trailed by 8 going in to the locker room, 48-40. Garnett led all scorers with 19 points on 9-16 shooting while Terrell Brandon added 10. Eddie Griffin led the Rockets with 11 points (3-3 from three-point range) and also grabbed 4 boards in limited time off the bench. Francis added 9 while Kevin Willis snared 10 boards.
Garnett scored to start the third. After Glen Rice missed a three and was rejected on a drive by Nesterovic, he converted a three-point play to bring the Rockets within 52-45. Cato nailed a 7-foot hook just off baseline then Francis found KT for a slam and Minnesota had to call timeout, up just 3.
Cuttino Mobley nailed two triples, the second of which gave the Rockets their first lead of the game at 57-56, at the 6:40 mark. But Garnett was too strong -- he scored 4 quick points, sparking a 10-2 Timberwolf run. 66-59 Minnesota. A 3-point play by Cato was followed by a Garnett-led 6-0 'Pup run, putting them back up 10.
Mobley again nailed a three off the baseline, and when Francis blew past two defenders, including 7-footer Loren Woods, for a nasty two-handed hammer slam, we had our score through three 74-69. Garnett had 33 points while Mobley (18) and Francis (15) led the Rockets.
Francis and Willis each scored to start the fourth and the crowd was back in to it. After Loren Woods hit a jumper, Francis got to the line but made just 1-2. After another Minnesota bucket, Francis picked up a loose ball and threw up a high-lofting prayer while fading away from 9-feet out as the shot clock expired - bingo.
After Walt Williams banked in a turnaround and Moochie found Mobley streaking towards the hoop for a layin, the game was tied at 80 with 6:40 left in the contest.
After some botched Rocket opportunities (and one horrendous non-call on a Willis rebound), Garnett hit 2 free throws and Joe Smith scored underneath and Minnesota was back up 4. Mobley hit a big shot -- calmly sinking an 18-footer -- to make it 86-84.
The Rockets blew 3 golden opportunities after that. Francis missed a rushed 16-footer, then after a Minnesota miss, Mobley had his pocket just picked outright by Brandon. On the next play, it happened again, only it was Francis' pocket picked bringing the ball up. That resulted in a Szczerbiak tip-in.
With 1:23 left, Willis tipped in a Rocket miss (his 17th board), and then forced a Garnett miss.
They again could not capitalize. Moochie dribbled out too much clock, threw it to Rice, who threw up an airball as the shot clock was expiring. 36 seconds left. The Wolves dribbled out some clock, got it to KG who missed.... Francis got the board, took off and found Mobley -- Cat went flying off the wing for a nasty slam. Crowd explodes. 14.7 seconds left, 88 all.
After a Minnesota timeout, Brandon took his time bringing the ball up and as time was winding down, he went around a pick, stopped, fired a 15-footer off the wing and nailed it. 90-88 Wolves with 2.4 seconds left. Timeout Rockets.