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Garnett goes for 30 and 17

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Sam Cassell and the Minnesota Timberwolves
aren't giving up on what has been a disappointing season just yet.

Kevin Garnett had 30 points, 17 rebounds and six assists, but it
was Cassell's return to the lineup that keyed the Timberwolves'
94-86 victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday night.

Cassell flashed some of the skill and leadership that was
responsible for the Timberwolves' run to the Western Conference
finals last season, but has been sorely lacking from the team so
far this year.

After missing Friday night's loss at Memphis with a sore
hamstring that has plagued him nearly the entire season, Cassell
scored 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting in 26 minutes.

He smiled often and was his wily old self -- drawing fouls,
jawing with the opposition and even getting into a shoving match
with McGrady.

"That's the first time we've seen Sam in awhile," guard Fred
Hoiberg said. "He was very aggressive. That's when we're at our
best is when he's out there getting everybody fired up. Hopefully
he can play out the rest of the season now."

The Timberwolves' season may depend on it.

They are 2½ games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff
spot in the Western Conference and now have just 14 games to make
up the ground.

"We have to have a little run right now, an eight-game winning
streak, something like that," Cassell said. "I think this team
has the capability of doing it, but I have to stay on the court."

They played like a desperate team against the Rockets.

Garnett scored 13 of his points in the third quarter, when the
Timberwolves took advantage of poor shooting by Tracy McGrady and
the Rockets to pull away.

The Rockets were just 3-of-14 from the field in the third and
trailed by as many as 23 points to lose for the second time in a
row following a six-game winning streak.

Yao Ming had 21 points and five rebounds for Houston, but did
most of his damage in the first quarter and was quiet for the rest
of the game.

McGrady's shooting slump continued on Sunday. He missed seven of
his first eight shots and finished with 15 points on 4-of-22
shooting. In his last four games, McGrady is 27-for-88 from the
field (31 percent).

Despite his monumental struggles, the Rockets used a 10-2 run at
the start of the fourth quarter to cut into Minnesota's lead. Mike
James' 3-pointer with 6:14 to go made the score 86-77, but the
Rockets never got closer than seven the rest of the way.

"We will follow the lead of myself, Tracy and Yao, and right
now none of us is inspired at all," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy
said. "The lead of myself and those two is not what it needs to
be."

The Timberwolves have also been missing that leadership for most
of what has been a puzzling and frustrating season. But it was out
in full force, courtesy of Cassell on Sunday.

Cassell sparked the team to a fast start with a nearly flawless
first half in which he was 5-for-6 for 14 points to help the Wolves
to a 13-point lead.

The Timberwolves opened the third quarter with an 11-1 run to go
up by 23 points. McGrady seemed uninterested for much of the rest
of the game, settling for 3-pointers and often drifting away from
the offensive sets.

"I'm shooting poorly from the field and it's carried over to my
defensive game, my energy," McGrady said. "It seems like it all
falls apart on you."

The only time McGrady really showed any emotion was during a
second-quarter scuffle with Cassell. Both players picked up
technicals for tussling after colliding on a pick and roll. After
the collision, McGrady shoved Cassell, who retaliated, and several
Wolves coaches had to step in to separate the two players.

"Sam has that fire every night," Garnett said. "Where he's
struggling right now is with consistency with his injury. But he
brings the fire. We know that."

James finished with 13 points and six rebounds, but Houston shot
just 35 percent for the game.

Wally Szczerbiak had 20 points and five assists for the Wolves,
giving them the kind of balance that will be critical if they are
going to leapfrog the Lakers and Denver and get into the playoffs.

"It's very doable," Cassell said. "I've been in situations
like this before in Milwaukee and New Jersey. We just gotta go on a
win streak. Plain and simple."

Game notes
Timberwolves backup C Mark Madsen missed the game with an
injured right wrist. Madsen said he thought there was ligament
damage in the wrist and he is scheduled to have an MRI on Monday.
... About an hour before tipoff, Latrell Sprewell and Houston coach
Jeff Van Gundy embraced as they passed each other in the hallway.
Van Gundy coached Sprewell when both were with the Knicks.