Following a hot streak, the Houston Rockets are back at square one. They have lost six games in a row and will get a chance to break it Saturday night at the Target Center, where the Minnesota Timberwolves will await them.
Like the Rockets, the 'Wolves have a losing streak they would love to snap tonight. They have lost five in a row, and the injury bug continues to dog what is otherwise a fine young team with tons of potential.
This is also the second time that Houston and Minnesota will play one another this season, with the Rockets having won a close one, 87-84, on December 26. Oddly enough, that too occurred at the Target Center, and the Timberwolves will be out for revenge.
Of course, Houston is not going to make it easy for them. The Rockets rank second in scoring, while the Timberwolves are 24th. However, the Rockets' high-scoring approach leaves them lacking in the defensive department, where they rank dead last compared to 14th-ranked Minnesota.
A clash of offense vs. defense is thus set to go down, and both teams being equally hungry for a win will make for another close final score.
Time: Saturday, January 19, 8 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston
Records: Houston Rockets (21-20) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (16-20)
Betting Line: Houston (-4), Minnesota (+4)
Injuries: Brandon Roy (knee, out), Chase Budinger (knee, out), Malcolm Lee (knee, out), Kevin Love (hand, out), Nikola Pekovic (quad, out), Alexey Shved (ankle, day-to-day).
Key Storyline: Can Minnesota Break Losing Streak with Scotch-Tape Roster?
The theme of the Minnesota Timberwolves' season thus far has been injuries. Because so many players may be laid up on the trainer's table tonight, the team may only be able to dress nine or 10 men tonight if Alexey Shved is unable to play. Of that group, two will be on 10-day contracts.
GM David Kahn has already brought in Chris Johnson and may soon sign forward Mickael Gelabale as well.
This immediately throws a monkey wrench into Minnesota's hopes of snapping its losing streak. The Rockets, despite their defensive shortcomings, are at full strength. As we have seen from them all season, they are a squad capable of getting hot quickly and taking control early.
That said, regardless of whether Shved can suit up, Minnesota needs to employ a lockdown defense from the get-go. Houston must not be allowed any free opportunities on offense. Every single one of its baskets must be earned and contested.
On the offensive side, Minnesota simply must be patient. The team cannot afford to go into desperation mode and try to beat Houston at its own game, so a slow-paced approach and isolating the go-to guy is important just so that the game can be kept close.
Both teams are playing for the same reason: to get back in the win column. However, in short-handed Minnesota's case, that could prove to be a bit too hard against a fiery Rockets offense.
That isn't to say that the Rockets are destined to score a lot of points tonight. When Houston faced Minnesota on December 26, the team was held to 87 points. In that three-point win, the Rockets shot just 29 percent from three-point land and were clearly out of their comfort zone.
Minnesota must use that same approach tonight. Despite having a roster held together by Scotch Tape, perhaps it can play the victor tonight.
Key Matchup: Ricky Rubio vs. Jeremy Lin
In order for Minnesota to have a chance tonight, Ricky Rubio needs to be in top form. The dynamic point guard has not been himself in 11 games since returning from ACL surgery, posting just 3.8 points and 4.7 assists to go with 1.4 steals over 20.8 minutes.
To add insult to injury, Rubio has also shot just 22 percent from the field. Granted, his scoring is the weakest part of his game, but to post a percentage that low is ridiculous.
While it is important that Rubio have a more effective game on offense tonight, it is even more important that he use his defensive skills to shut down Houston's Jeremy Lin. The Harvard grad is finally out of the scoring slump that dogged him early in the season, and his field-goal percentage has risen to 43.
Lin has also posted 12.2 points, 6.2 assists and two steals per game, and plays an important role in Houston's run-and-gun game. Rubio's job tonight will be simple: shut Lin down.
That should not be too hard, as Lin is still learning how to be an effective pass-first point guard, plus the fact that he is prone to turnovers. This season, he has averaged three per game.
To avoid this, Lin must be ready to face a lockdown defense from the start and have a plan on how to get past it. Be it getting the ball to a teammate early in a possession or driving past Rubio, he cannot let himself be put in a position to turn the ball over.
Otherwise, Rubio is given an easy shot at having a good game, as are the rest of the Timberwolves. Turnovers can be a dagger in the heart for some teams, and Houston ranks last in the league with 16.5 per game.
Rubio needs to take full advantage of this when guarding Lin and prove to his teammates, the league and himself that he is not a one-season wonder.
X-Factor: J.J. Barea
Listed at 6'0", 175 pounds, Barea does not look like a player who is much of a threat on the court. That makes him all the more fun to watch once he enters the game.
Despite his diminutive size, at least by NBA standards, Barea has averaged 11 points per game and has shot 33 percent from long range. He is an excellent spark off of Minnesota's bench and played a similar role for the Dallas Mavericks in their 2011 championship season.
Barea's numbers on the NBA level may not be eye-popping, but he is so committed to playing hard that his stats become an afterthought. He must be fully committed tonight, as the Timberwolves will need his offense just to keep up with Houston.
Fortunately, Barea's ability to slash to the hoop should be a great help against the Rockets' weak defense. He had 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting in Minnesota's first game against Houston in December and even managed to pull down seven rebounds.
A similar effort must be put forth tonight. Minnesota has no star player that can carry it tonight and everyone must do his fair share in the quest to avoid a sixth straight loss.
This means Barea must be in top form, shooting threes and also driving the lane to draw fouls. Like Rubio, he can be a big help just by working to keep the game close. If he can perform beyond that, then Minnesota fans may finally have something to cheer about.
The Minnesota Timberwolves will definitely put up a good effort tonight, making the Houston Rockets work for important baskets and actually play defense. Sadly, it will not be enough to snap a five-game losing streak.
Even though Minnesota lost by only three points the first time Houston came to town, that was before Pekovic and Love were injured. Now that the Timberwolves are horribly short on reliable players, tonight's game will definitely not be as close.
Who will win?
James Harden will continue to show just why he is going to be a player to watch for years to come, and Chandler Parsons will sink some key three-pointers and mid-range jumpers en route to double figures in scoring. Omer Asik will be a beast in the paint, hitting double digits in rebounds.
Ricky Rubio will do a good job of slowing down Jeremy Lin, but his offensive struggles will continue to dog him as he continues his search for last season's form. Not even the pesky offense of J.J. Barea will be able to help Minnesota, though second-year man Derrick Williams will put up some good numbers tonight due to Houston's lack of solid defense at the 4.
The game will be in Houston's control from start to finish, and one losing streak will end while another continues.
Houston Rockets 104, Minnesota Timberwolves 89