The Houston Rockets are on a roll. The team's Christmas Day win over the Chicago Bulls extended its winning streak to four games, but there will be no time for rest. Houston takes on the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center tonight, and the home team is not one to be taken lightly.
Minnesota has seen its share of injury troubles this season, but has still fought and clawed its way to a 13-12 record. Dynamic point man Ricky Rubio is back on the court and slowly returning to full-time status, and the team as a whole has performed well even as star Kevin Love struggles to find his shooting accuracy.
Houston, on the other hand, looks like a brand-new team now that Jeremy Lin has gotten out of his funk. The Harvard Grad is in full Linsanity mode, averaging 16.4 points and 7.6 assists over his last five games, and his on-court relationship with teammate James Harden is definitely starting to gel.
The Rockets are thus finally starting to live up to their full potential. Lin and Harden are becoming a solid 1-2 punch, and the team's run-and-gun game is slowly turning them into contenders rather than failing and having them wallow as pretenders.
Minnesota also likes to play a fast-paced offense, which will make this game all the more interesting to watch. It's a battle of two young and feisty teams, and the winning squad will not be the one with superior statistics.
Rather, it will be the one that simply wants the win more.
Time: Wednesday, December 26, 8 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, Fox Sports North Plus
Records: Houston Rockets (15-12) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-12)
Betting Line: Not available as of Wednesday, December 26, 12:26 p.m. EST
Injuries: Chase Budinger (knee, out), Brandon Roy (knee, out), Malcolm Lee (knee, out), Kevin Love (eye, day-to-day), Patrick Patterson (foot, out), Chandler Parsons (knee, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Rockets Continue to Soar in Minnesota?
The Rockets are on a four-game winning streak, and much of it is thanks to point guard Jeremy Lin finally getting over his shooting woes. Over his past five games, his field-goal percentage has been an incredible 55, and his mark for the season has risen to 43.
Houston will need him to continue his hot streak against Minnesota, a team whose defense ranks among the best in the league. The Timberwolves rank eighth in points allowed per game, with 94.4 per game, and are also fifth in rebounding.
The Rockets are sixth in rebounding and can definitely provide a good battle in the paint, but their defense as a whole is like Swiss cheese. They rank 29th in points allowed, with 103.1 per contest. This is particularly ironic, since they are the highest scoring team in the league.
They will need to try and play tough defense tonight, even if they are a run-and-gun team. Minnesota is a team that can attack from anywhere on the floor, and the Rockets must be prepared accordingly. A winning streak is on the line, and defense is one of their weaker points.
If Harden and Lin can create pressure in the backcourt and Omer Asik can do the same in the middle, then the odds of the Rockets extending their streak will grow. Otherwise, their flaws will be exposed, and other teams will be well-prepared when it comes time to face them.
Key Matchup: Omer Asik vs. Nikola Pekovic
One area that both the Rockets and Timberwolves do well in is rebounding, which makes the battle between Houston's Omer Asik and Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic all the more exciting. Both are fine young centers who bring a great deal to the table, but their approaches to the game are a bit different.
Asik is 7'0", 255 pounds, and is more of a pure rebounding center. His 11.6 boards per game rank fourth in the NBA, and he has also averaged a respectable 10.9 points on offense.
It is on offense where Asik's flaws are clear. His hands might as well be all thumbs, and his confidence there is not as strong as it is on defense.
Pekovic, on the other hand, can hold his own on offense. As more of a low-post center at 6'11", 290 pounds, he is averaging 16.2 points and just 8.3 rebounds, though he has posted 12 boards per game over his last five games.
Also, it should be noted that Pekovic had a 30-point, 12-rebound game against the Houston Rockets last season, on February 17.
It's going to be interesting to see how each man performs. Pekovic will test Asik's defense by playing the low-post, and while on defense, will force Asik to play the same game rather than rise up for a dunk or drive the lane for a quick layup off the pick-and-roll.
The experience factor is pretty much even, with both players only recently breaking out. This is thus a battle that's going to go one of two ways: one man will dominate the other, or both will fight to a stalemate.
In a game where defense will be the deciding factor, keep an eye on the two big men in the paint at all times.
X-Factor: Andrei Kirilenko
After spending last season playing for CSKA Moscow in his native Russia, Andrei Kirilenko returned to the NBA on a two-year deal from Minnesota. Since settling into his new role as a role player and is not someone people expect to be a star, the man has flourished.
On the season, Kirilenko is averaging 13.2 points, seven rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. He has also chosen his shots wisely, having made 50.5 percent of his field-goal attempts on the season.
Against Houston's weak defense, Kirilenko needs to do what he's been doing all season long: drive the lane and hope for the best. Worst-case scenario, he misses his shot. Best case, he either makes his shot, draws a foul or both. There's really no way to go wrong in this department.
On defense, the man known as AK-47 just needs to keep on being his usual pesky self. He's averaged two blocks and 1.4 steals for his career, and has good size at 6'9", 235 pounds to create mismatches and force the opposition to play his game.
That's going to be tough against a a speedy Houston team, but Kirilenko's experience could be enough to put a damper on Rockets coach Kevin McHale's plan to play the run-and-gun. Kirilenko can force the team's scorers to slow down, which is just what Minnesota coach Rick Adelman wants to do.
Should Kirilenko be able to do that and be on his game, then Minnesota will likely be well on its way to snapping the Rockets' streak.
The Rockets will definitely give Minnesota a game, but their ship will run out of fuel in Minneapolis tonight. The Timberwolves are just too hungry and deep a team, and they have proven time after time that they can play past injuries to key players.
Jeremy Lin and James Harden will both have respectable games, but Houston's inconsistent defense will allow the Timberwolves to slash to the hoop and create off the dribble without much to stop them. As a result, Kirilenko will have another good game, and even Ricky Rubio will be able to produce in limited minutes.
Who will win?
In the paint, Omer Asik's lack of overall athleticism will show. Nikola Pekovic will wipe the floor with him in the low-post, and Kevin Love will have yet another double-double despite wonky shooting percentages.
Despite Houston's streak, this is Minnesota's game to lose. The Timberwolves will thus come in ready to play defense and immediately slow down the Rockets' attack.
With an arena full of passionate fans cheering it on, Minnesota will pull away with the victory, and a close one at that.
Minnesota Timberwolves 103, Houston Rockets 99