HOUSTON -- Thursday night was one of those games in which Houston Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff learned something about his team.
James Harden didn’t have his outside game, going 0-for-7 from 3-point range, but he made the majority of his shots at the rim as he scored a game-high 33 points. Harden made 13 of 25 shots from the floor and snagged eight rebounds. All of Harden’s buckets were on contested shots.
Harden had help as Terrence Jones, moving into the starting lineup with Howard out, added 14 points and eight rebounds. Clint Capela, who slid over to center, scored just seven points, but snagged 10 boards, something the Rockets miss with Howard out of the game.
And then there was rookie Montrezl Harrell. He scored just five points, including three from the line, and had just one rebound, yet his hustle in a season-high 27 minutes and tough defense late in the game on Gordon Hayward helped.
“Once again [Harrell] is ready to play,” Harden said. “He played a lot of minutes and he was very effective. He didn’t score the ball too much but just everything, defensively being in the right place, setting screens, little things that won’t show up in the stat sheet but he got the job done.”
Before the game, Bickerstaff said his team was desperate. The opening moments of the season will make a coach feel that way but of late this Rockets team has shown flashes of coming around.
Some of the losses haven’t been pretty to watch, but when Bickerstaff sees how his team grinded out this win, it gives him hope for a turnaround.
“It’s a style that we’ve played before,” he said. “We’ve been down before, we’d grind it out. Against this team on Monday, we did it. San Antonio, at home on Christmas Day, was a grind-it-out game. So our guys don’t mind the grind, they don’t mind fighting, they don’t mind clawing.”
The victory over the Jazz moved the Rockets to just a game behind Memphis for the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
Of course it’s so early to talk about such things, but given how inconsistent the West has been behind Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, a move up in the standings remains realistic.
And you discover a few things without some key players.
Howard was out with a back soreness, Ty Lawson was suspended, Donatas Motiejunas is out for an undetermined length of time with his own back soreness, and the Rockets moved K.J. McDaniels down to the D-League on Thursday.
Bickerstaff and the Rockets in general are judged some nights on how they handle adversity.
Without Howard and Motiejunas, Bickerstaff had to use Harrell late in the game.
With the Rockets clinging to a 99-94 lead Harrell defended Hayward. It seemed to be a mismatch on paper, but not to Harrell, who stuck his arm in Hayward’s face on a shot attempt forcing an air ball with 25.9 seconds to play. Jones secured the miss shot and sealed the win.
“We need to get a defensive stop,” Harrell said. “We had to switch in the pick and roll and just try to make it a tough contested shot.”
You can see Harrell growing. Monday night in Utah, Harrell made another nice play on the defensive end, though it appeared he got away with a foul. Harrell, while rotating during a switch, blocked a shot by the Jazz’s Jeff Withey with 22 seconds to play and with the Jazz down by two.
The body language of the Rockets on the floor gave the impression a foul was about to be called. It wasn’t, and the team kept playing and eventually won 93-91.
It’s these kinds of tough and contested games that the Rockets need to start winning now, regardless of who the opponent is and what they have going on themselves.
“Utah is a very tough team and they just don’t have the skill position players right now,” Jason Terry said. “They’re young, but the way they play offensively, it’s textbook basketball.”
How the Rockets responded after trailing at halftime to the Jazz, outscoring them 33-22 in the third quarter and 64-50 in the second half showed this team can respond from adversity.
“We did talk about it at halftime,” Terry said. “We said it was real dead in here, let’s bring some life to the party.”