Ron Artest scored 20 points and Aaron Brooks and Von Wafer added 13 apiece in Houston's easy 107-88 win over Minnesota on Friday night.
The Rockets play at San Antonio on Sunday with first place in the Southwest Division on the line. The Spurs lost to Boston on Friday night, leaving Houston only a half-game behind.
The Rockets' season has been dotted with injuries, and they lost Tracy McGrady to a season-ending knee injury around the All-Star break. Even they're a little surprised to be contending for a division championship with only 11 games left in the regular season.
"Who would've thought we'd be here?" said forward Shane Battier, who scored 11 on Friday night. "We've stayed the course, stayed together and we've set ourselves up for this matchup."
The Rockets will need a big game from Yao Ming on Sunday, but they didn't need one against Minnesota.
Yao scored 14 points, but missed 10 of his 16 shots. He also had eight rebounds before leaving for good late in the third quarter. Houston had the game in hand by then, stretching their lead to 24 earlier in the quarter.
"We did what we had to do, putting them away, not making it a close game," said Artest, who went 8-for-16 from the field.
The victory kept the Rockets in third place overall in the Western Conference. After Sunday's game in San Antonio, Houston plays in Utah on Tuesday. The Jazz hold the No. 7 spot in the West, but only trail the Rockets by two games.
"We know that we have 11 games left and we play a lot of road games against good teams for the most part," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "You just have to keep going out, you just have to keep trying to win games and see what happens."
Craig Smith scored 19 and Kevin Love had 18 points and 12 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who've lost 16 of 19 since Al Jefferson's season-ending knee injury on Feb. 8. Jefferson scored over 30 points in Minnesota's first two games against the Rockets this season.
The Rockets beat the Timberwolves for the eighth straight time, while the Timberwolves dropped their sixth straight road game.
"They beat us up pretty good," Minnesota coach Kevin McHale said. "We couldn't get anything going offensively and then our defense didn't come through. It was a bad combination for us."
Minnesota only stayed close for a half.
Jason Collins, averaging 1.5 points, scored seven early points and did a good job defending Yao, who started 1-for-9 from the field. But Minnesota missed 13 of its first 19 shots and Brooks' second 3-pointer put the Rockets ahead 20-14.
Kyle Lowry drove for a layup before Brent Barry and Wafer hit 3-pointers in the first minute of the second quarter to stretch Houston's lead to 30-16.
Yao scored only four points in the first half, but the Rockets led 48-37 at the break after going 5-for-11 from 3-point range.
The Rockets started the third quarter with a 14-3 run to go up 62-40. Yao only contributed four points during the decisive spurt.
Minnesota scored the next nine points, finished by Sebastian Telfair's straight-on 3-pointer with 6:59 left in the quarter. Artest scored seven points over the next minute to push Houston's lead back to 20.
"We just kept our foot on their necks," Wafer said. "We didn't want to let up."
Yao checked out of the game with 31.5 seconds left in the third quarter. Artest scored 13 in the quarter and the Rockets led 83-66.
The Timberwolves never made a serious challenge in the fourth quarter, allowing Yao to stay on the bench and rest.
G James White made his Rockets' debut with 3:42 left in the game. The Rockets signed White from the developmental league on March 3 and offered him a second 10-day contract on March 13. White hit a 3-pointer and scored five points. ... The Rockets are 16-1 at home this season when they reach 100 points. ... The Timberwolves have lost 22 of their last 26.
|Houston (46-25) «||22||26||35||24||107|
|MIN:C. Smith 19 Pts
MIN:K. Love 12 Reb
MIN:M. Miller 7 Ast
|HOU:R. Artest 20 Pts
HOU:L. Scola 9 Reb
HOU:R. Artest 6 Ast
|Players of the Game|
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|R. Foye, PG||33||3-11||2-2||1||5||2||9|
|K. Love, PF||28||7-13||4-5||12||0||1||18|
|R. Gomes, PF||26||2-4||3-4||2||1||0||8|
|S. Telfair, PG||24||4-12||0-0||2||1||1||11|
|J. Collins, C||15||3-8||1-2||4||0||2||7|
|M. Miller, SF||31||3-6||0-0||4||7||1||6|
|R. Carney, SF||26||0-3||0-0||2||0||1||0|
|B. Cardinal, PF||20||1-4||0-0||1||1||2||3|
|C. Smith, PF||20||8-11||3-6||7||0||1||19|
|S. Williams, PF||6||1-4||1-2||1||1||0||3|
|B. Brown, PG||6||2-3||0-0||1||2||0||4|
|K. Ollie, PG||4||0-1||0-0||2||1||1||0|
|M. Madsen, PF||Did Not Play|
|A. Jefferson, PF||Did Not Play|
|C. Brewer, SF||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|
|R. Artest, SF||36||8-16||2-2||5||6||2||20|
|S. Battier, SF||30||4-5||1-1||6||2||0||11|
|Y. Ming, C||30||6-16||2-2||8||1||2||14|
|L. Scola, PF||27||4-10||0-0||9||2||2||8|
|A. Brooks, PG||26||4-9||4-4||1||4||1||13|
|K. Lowry, SG||28||4-7||2-2||2||4||3||10|
|V. Wafer, SG||20||5-13||2-2||3||1||0||13|
|B. Barry, SG||18||3-6||1-1||4||2||0||10|
|C. Hayes, PF||18||0-1||0-0||6||2||3||0|
|B. Cook, PF||4||1-1||0-0||0||0||1||3|
|J. White, SG||4||2-2||0-0||0||1||2||5|
|D. Mutombo, C||Did Not Play|
|T. McGrady, SG||Did Not Play|
|C. Landry, PF||Did Not Play|
|J. Dorsey, PF||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|