DALLAS -- As Friday's halftime show was concluding, James Harden watched some dude play with a dog the size of a soda can. Harden motioned for some teammates to watch the dog walk on a basketball. It was amusing to Harden and his Houston Rockets teammates, who got one final breather before the start of a second half that would finish with their first win of the season.
“That’s what we have to do, play on both ends of the floor,” Rockets forward Trevor Ariza said. “We can’t relax on offense or James bailing us out like he did last year.”
This victory was fueled by a late third-quarter burst by Harden, sound defense -- something the Rockets didn’t have in their opener -- and a lineup, minus Harden, that maintained a lead early in the fourth quarter.
Harden finished with 26 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. He wasn’t his dominating self, as he missed his first five shots of the night and didn’t convert a bucket until 4 minutes, 22 seconds remained in the second quarter.
But in a back-and-forth game between two rivals, Harden, looking tired, responded. With the Rockets ahead by two and less than three minutes left in the third quarter, Harden nailed three 3-point field goals before the frame's end. Houston's lead was 10 heading into the fourth.
“I was in a groove, and it was time to close out the quarter,” Harden said. “That’s one of the things we preach: We've got to end quarters the right way defensively and score the basketball, just give us some momentum throughout the entire game.”
Defensively, the Rockets failed badly against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night. The mistakes were many, and the film session Thursday afternoon was pointed.
“The L.A. loss was a wake-up for us,” Houston forward K.J. McDaniels said.
Friday night, the Rockets boxed out, rotated to the open man and contested shots. Indeed, they forced a pair of shot-clock violations in the second half, including one with Houston ahead by 12 with seven minutes left in the fourth when a series of Mavericks couldn’t get Dallas a shot.
The entire Rockets bench erupted in excitement, with Harden leading the cheers, as if the game had ended.
“The big thing is they lost the lead in L.A. every time they went in,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “This time we increased or held the lead. To have a great team, you have to have that, and they did a good job.”
Harden returned to the game after the defensive stand, and instead of making shots, he turned into the facilitator D’Antoni aims for him to be, an effort highlighted by a pass to McDaniels cutting along the baseline.
Asked later for his thoughts on the play, McDaniels said he was headed to the other side of the rim. But Andrew Bogut stood in the way, so McDaniels did a double-clutch dunk over the Mavs big man, pushing the Rockets' lead to 89-78 with 5:40 left and basically sending everybody home.
“I wanted to go to the other side, but Bogut was there,” McDaniels said. “I wanted to go for a reverse dunk or a layup. James did a great job of finding me.”
This group opened the fourth with a 10-point lead, and during an approximately seven-minute stretch, widened the margin to as much as 12. And when Harden checked in for Ennis with 6:31 remaining, the only thing left was to close the game and head home at 1-1.
“Jeff [Bzdelik] corrects the defense,” D’Antoni said of the Rockets' assistant coach. “He did a heck of a job, and he has been doing a great job all along. That’s a lot more like it [compared to the opener]. We had a lot of guys that stepped up and a lot of guys that played well, and obviously that’s where the key is going to be. If we can keep our heads on defense and keep getting better offensively, it will take care of it.”