After a 111-98 drubbing at the Toyota Center Friday night, the Houston Rockets solidified a 1-3 record versus the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 2011-12 NBA season.
Minnesota dominated Houston’s soft interior, garnering 63 points from the starting frontcourt of Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, and exposed the Rockets’ wildly inconsistent defense in all facets with 56 percent overall shooting. Ricky Rubio dished nine assists, including a beautiful one-handed, no look bullet to Love late. And it became apparent that the T-Wolves have the Rockets’ number for the time being.
But each team is young and possesses a bright future in the Western Conference. Based on a number of factors, they also appear to be budding rivals.
First, there’s the friction. The season’s second meeting, a Wolves victory, yielded a reactionary below-the-belt bop from Luis Scola. As Scola drifted out of bounds, he bounced the ball off Love’s male region to keep Houston possession. Relatively mild by basketball standards, but still an unpleasant experience.
Whether in apparent retaliation, unrelated spite, or frustration at the officials’ no-call on his layup attempt, Love proceeded to stomp — yes, it was intentional — on Scola’s face and chest in the following game as he ran by the Argentineans floor-bound body. No foul was whistled on Love, and Houston’s bench was smacked with a technical for arguing the classless maneuver. Of course, Love was suspended two games for the incident as the NBA implicitly acknowledged the ineptitude of its referees.
The fans booed Love heavily at the Toyota Center Friday, but each player has verbally moved past the incident and appears focused on basketball more than personal wars. Regardless, “The Stomp” likely surged Scola’s motivation and soured any chance at friendship for the power forwards. Love got the better of Scola Friday, outscoring him by 23 points and keeping him in foul trouble, but future meetings will inevitably take place.
Outside of the visceral dislike between players, the coaches also enact a role in this dramatic formation of a rivalry. Minnesota’s Rick Adelman coached Houston for four seasons, leading the city to its only playoff series win of the 2000s, but his contract was not renewed in 2011 as a result of philosophical differences with G.M. Daryl Morey. Meanwhile, Houston’s Kevin McHale was Wolves’ G.M. and occasional interim coach for over a decade. He made the decision to draft Kevin Garnett and is responsible for much of the talented roster Adelman inherited this season. Both coaches likely want to show their former suitors how wrong they were to let them go, and elements of ego-boosting are at work here.
Finally, the most important factor leading to the rivalry’s development is the competitive similarities. Each team is young with first-year coaches, hovering near the fringes of playoff assurance, but appears set for future success with developing stars like Houston’s Kyle Lowry and Minnesota’s Love/Rubio combination. They are headed in similar directions, and once Houston receives more inside help through a trade or the draft, the games won’t continue to be so one-sided. Rockets players will have plenty of time between meetings to build up their resentment and embarrassment at losing three times to their northern neighbors. Houston play-by-play announcer even ridiculed the city of Minneapolis for its cold temperatures and difficulty luring talented attention. It won’t be long before both teams are battling for playoff seeding because the foundation is there for a long rivalry, like Houston-Utah in the 2000s.