Rockets bounce back behind Mutombo, hot shooting

Saturday March 3, 2007 1:51 AM

Rockets bounce back behind Mutombo, hot shooting

Houston 108, Denver 97

Game Recap: Box Score

Damien Pierce Staff Writer

Dikembe Mutombo was studying his stat line after Wednesday's game against Toronto when something popped up in his mind.

He had a pretty forgettable game.

"I had one of the worst games of my career," said Mutombo, who had zero points and one rebound in the setback to the Raptors. "Was I really playing that game? I came out wanting to do more (against Denver)."

He just didn't think he'd have a record-setting night to make up for it.

Nearly 48 hours after being rendered a non-factor, the 7-foot-2 center once again defied time by pulling down a season-high 22 rebounds to lead the Rockets to a 108-97 victory Friday night over the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center.

Mutombo, the league's oldest player at 40, became the first 40-year old in NBA history to grab at least 20 boards in a single game.

The oldest player to have such a performance before him? Hakeem Olajuwon, who had a 20-rebound effort about two months shy of his 39th birthday.

"Is he 40," Nuggets guard Allen Iverson jokingly said. "He's playing great. What can you say about him? They lose a great player like Yao Ming and they have a great back-up center like that. You think because he's 40 years old he might not be as effective as he once was, but he is just as effective and he's smarter as a player. You talk about him being 40 years old, but I think he has many more years to play as long as he stays healthy."

Mutombo pulled it off against the team that he began his career with some 16 seasons ago.

The Rockets center said he was simply trying to make up for a rough outing against the Raptors.

"I wanted to come out and show people that I still have something left," Mutombo said.
"The old man can still rebound."

Behind the center's workmanlike performance, the Rockets (36-22) wiped away -- at least for a night -- concerns about their recent play.

The Rockets held the league's second-highest scoring team below the century mark with their tenacious defense and clobbered the Nuggets 51-40 on the boards. Houston had a whopping 18 offensive rebounds, eight coming from Mutombo.

With the improved energy on defense, the Rockets carried that rhythm over to the offensive end. Tracy McGrady led five Rockets in double figures with 28 points. Shane Battier and Luther Head each canned five three-pointers as the Rockets buried 14 buckets from beyond the arc.

"When we play defense, we win,'' Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. ''We will score plenty of points."

The Rockets pulled away from the Nuggets in the third quarter with an 11-2 run midway through the period. Rafer Alston ignited the spurt by hitting a three-pointer that gave Houston a 70-61 lead.

That advantage eventually extended to 18 points by the time the third quarter was over. Denver never got closer than 11 over the final 12 minutes.

"We came out wit a great deal of energy and for us to be a great team, that's how we have to play night in and night outy," McGrady said. "We had to win this game tonight."

The Rockets were missing Bonzi Wells, who returned to the inactive list with a sore right foot that he hurt against Toronto on Wednesday night. He is listed as day-to-day.

Without Wells, the Rockets turned to Kirk Snyder off the bench. Snyder had five points in 18 minutes, but played some productive minutes in the second quarter.

The Rockets, of course, were really get production from their entire lineup.

Just no one was providing a bigger lift than Mutombo.

"Mutombo getting 22 rebounds was huge,'' Van Gundy said. ''That helped us win the rebounding battle (by a 51-40 margin). Lately, we've been getting killed on the boards."