MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (29-16)
at HOUSTON ROCKETS (30-12)
Tip-off: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
The Rockets and Timberwolves meet for the first time this season on Thursday.After a 25-4 start to the season that had them in first place in the Western Conference standings, the Rockets would go on to lose eight of their next 13, dropping them well behind the Warriors in the standings. A 112-103 loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles on Monday put an end to a modest three-game win streak, as Houston PG Chris Paul was outplayed by the Clips' Lou Williams in Paulís return to Staples Center. Rockets SG James Harden, who has missed each of the past seven games with a strained left hamstring, has been upgraded to questionable for this one, although itís possible that the NBA could opt to suspend Harden, who was among the group of players, with SF Trevor Ariza, Paul and SG Gerald Green, who reportedly attempted to enter Clippers locker room after Mondayís game. C Nene, who has been out with a bruised knee suffered Jan. 3, is also listed as questionable along with C Zhou Qi (elbow) and forward SF Troy Williams (sprained knee) have also been upgraded to questionable.
The point spread and the total of this game will ride on an announcement declaring either Harden's participation or his absence, as he's the lifeblood of Houston's formidable offense. He last played on New Year's Eve, scoring 40 points in a 148-142 win against the Lakers. Houston is 4-3 since then, with three of those wins coming against teams with win percentages under .400 (Orlando, Chicago and Phoenix). Paul returned from his own minor injury just in time for Harden to go out, so the Rockets have largely been without one or the other during its recent skid. Paul hasn't been shy about picking up some extra shots, hoisting up 29 in only 33 minutes against Portland last week to great effect: 37 points, 11 assists, seven boards and three steals. The rich got richer late in December when the Rockets inked somehow-unsigned Gerald Green. He's been a worthy addition to their high-powered offense, scoring in double-digits in nine straight games with the team. SG Eric Gordon has been starting with Harden out, and he's the leading scorer of a volume-shooting group of wings that also includes Ariza and Green. An underrated aspect of Houston's slide may have been an injury to PF Luc Mbah a Moute, the team's best defensive wing. He missed over a month's worth of games before returning to the lineup on Monday, scoring five points in 26 minutes. Mbah a Moute and SF P.J. Tucker have both proven invaluable after signing as free agents in the offseason. Young C Clint Capela has been a beast as Houston's lone interior player this year.
Entering a Tuesday night game in Orlando, the Wolves had won five straight games, with each victory in double digits and four of them coming by at least 16 points. The dominance continued on Monday at home against Portland, when SG Jimmy Butler scored 24 points on efficient 7-of-11 shooting to lead the charge in a 120-103 victory. At over 47% from the field, he's having the best shooting season of his career, and he remains an elite defender. His arrival in Minnesota theoretically should have relegated SF Andrew Wiggins to the role of third banana in this offense, but Wiggins is taking the most shots of any Wolf while shooting a lower percentage than any other starter. He has stepped up big in recent games, however, leading the Wolves in scoring in their blowout win over Cleveland last week with 25 points and matching Butler's efficiency with 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting against Portland. The most valuable asset to this franchise is C Karl-Anthony Towns. Like Wiggins, the young big man is still coming into his own, which is scary considering his current scoring and rebounding abilities. He trails only DeMarcus Cousins and Joel Embiid in scoring at the center position, and heís shooting around 54% while each of those players is under 49%. He was also hitting 41.6% from deep on 3.7 3PA entering Tuesday night. PG Jeff Teague and PF Taj Gibson have fit in well with their new team. Head coach Tom Thibodeau puts heavy minutes on his starters, with SG Jamal Crawford and C Gorgui Dieng the leading minutes-getters off the bench in Minnesota.