NEW YORK -- They looked exhausted.
And maybe they were, but James Harden leaned into Dwight Howard and smiled in the closing moments of a game at Madison Square Garden.
Desperate teams need wins and considering what this Houston Rockets team has been through this season, beating the New York Knicks in overtime, 116-111, on Sunday night was worth every second, minute, sweat and ounce of breath.
The Rockets extended their winning streak to just two games, and it is significant because it has been 19 days since this team won consecutive games. A victory such as this might turn the Rockets into the team that reached the Western Conference finals last season and began the next season with tremendous expectations.
“The previous 15 games we were in a slump; [Sunday] we had some energy,” said Harden, who needed an IV after scoring 26 points in 45 minutes. “Dwight had a big dunk that gave us an extra little energy to make shots, to get stops on the defensive end, to get a couple more hustle plays. Things like that are game changers.”
The Knicks controlled this game for most of the night, even without an ill Carmelo Anthony. Yet, the Rockets kept fighting, and at halftime, gritty starting point guard Patrick Beverley went hard at his teammates because that's what players from the West Side Chicago do.
He spoke to Harden, telling him to keep pushing. He spoke to Ty Lawson, who didn’t play, but Beverley wanted him to keep his spirits up.
Did Beverley get on people or just have calm conversations?
“A little bit of both. My approach is different from most people," Beverley said. "The guys know me who have been around here for years. Biggest thing for me is winning basketball games, and I hate losing. Everybody knows that if my approach one day is cussing you out, then that’s what it is. I’m doing that in the position to win basketball games.”
Everything turned in the fourth quarter as the Knicks blew a 14-point lead. Marcus Thornton smashed a three-pointer, thanks to Howard tipping out a miss from Harden, to tie the game at 101-101 with 32.2 seconds remaining.
In overtime, Thornton and Howard connected on the play of the game, maybe the season, for the Rockets.
On the first possession, Thornton sent a pass high above the rim to Howard, who snagged the ball and smashed a two-handed dunk over Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis.
Howard said Porzingis told him the dunk was "nasty."
“That was the old Dwight right there, the slam-dunk Dwight,” Thornton said.
The game wasn’t over as Porzingis hit a shot over Trevor Ariza to tie the game at 103 before Thornton went wild.
He made consecutive jumpers, including a corner 3 with 3:35 left for a 108-103 edge, as the Rockets' bench jumped up, yelling and screaming.
For a team left for dead in the first weeks of the season, the Rockets found life from different people as the overtime progressed.
Langston Galloway tied the game at 111-111 with a jumper, and on the next possession, Howard set a screen, sending Arron Afflalo to the floor, to free up Ariza. Harden, with the ball in the front court, found an open Ariza, who hit the three, pushing the lead to 114-111 with 1:12 to play.
“We got contributions from everybody,” interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “Guys who might not have been playing extremely well or a lot came in and made plays, and it was a bunch of small plays. Marcus Thornton obviously makes shots, but he makes a helluva pass to Dwight for the lob in a moment when we needed it the most. Dwight sets a heck of a screen for Trevor Ariza and gets him a wide-open three. Those small plays are the plays that we made, and those plays make a difference.”
These Rockets were just scrappy. Maybe the flash from last season won’t ever return as Bickerstaff continues to find consistent rotation minutes for the bench, manage Howard’s minutes and attempt to get the effort the previous coach did not.
“We’re kinda ticking the clock right now,” Bickerstaff said. “Things are turning in the right direction for us, but with us, we understand it is everyday. We can’t afford right now with the position we’re in to take any steps backwards. We can’t get too comfortable, too confident because we won a game. This game is over with now, and we fly to Detroit and we got to prepare ourselves to get a win in Detroit.”