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Rockets' new role players bounce back in a pivotal Game 4 win

HOUSTON -- The brains behind the Houston Rockets’ offense stressed swagger, not strategy, the day after Houston sputtered to its lowest-scoring outing of the season in a Game 3 loss.

With all due respect to the San Antonio Spurs’ defense, the stingiest in the NBA this season, coach Mike D’Antoni and point guard James Harden weren’t willing to concede that the Rockets needed to alter their approach to win this Western Conference semifinal series. They insisted that Houston could succeed with the fast-paced, let-it-fly style the team rode to 55 wins in the regular season.

If the Rockets didn’t believe it, they were dead in the water. If they played with hesitancy again, the Spurs would pounce on them like pit bulls sensing fear.

Harden’s supporting cast heard the message loud and clear, particularly the trio of shooters Rockets general manager Daryl Morey acquired over the last season to complement Houston’s MVP candidate. A couple of nights after their collective no-show, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Lou Williams played major roles in the Rockets’ series-tying 125-104 victory in Sunday night’s Game 4 at the Toyota Center.

Gordon, Anderson and Williams combined for 48 points on 19-of-39 shooting Sunday, a far cry from their 11 points on 3-of-18 shooting Friday. A poor shooting performance is one thing, but the Rockets can’t live with their hired guns playing passively.

“We told them we really won’t get to where we want to go if you guys don’t be aggressive,” said Harden, who led Houston with 28 points and 12 assists. “Make or miss, I don’t care. Rare night that all those guys struggled in Game 3; today was a lot better. You’ve got to keep that momentum up. Be aggressive.”

Harden admitted before Saturday’s practice that he still occasionally struggles to “find that happy medium” between being aggressive as a scorer and making sure his teammates are involved and in rhythm. Houston’s offense sputtered in Game 3 despite Harden scoring 43 points.

As far as D’Antoni is concerned, the solution was simple: Play fast.

“They don’t have an answer for us in transition,” D’Antoni said before Sunday’s game.

The Rockets proceeded to prove him right, torching the Spurs for 34 points in the first quarter. They had 13 fast-break points in the first 12 minutes, more than they had in Game 3 and matching their Game 2 total.

But it’s not just about traditional fast-break points, of which Houston officially had only two more the rest of Sunday night. When the Rockets push the pace, they can take advantage of crisscrossed mismatches and benefit from crisp ball movement against a scrambling Spurs defense, as they often did during a win in which they shot 52.6 percent from the floor and 44.2 percent (19-of-43) from 3-point range.

“We were just the more aggressive team from the start of the game,” said Williams, who had 13 points after going scoreless the previous game. “We put ourselves in position to have those guys on [their] heels.”

Anderson also had 13 points, with Harden assisting on three of his five buckets; Anderson finished 3-of-7 from downtown in Game 4 after inexplicably missing his first 19 3-point attempts at home this postseason. Gordon was especially efficient, scoring 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, highlighted by 3s on back-to-back possessions to begin the fourth quarter that essentially eliminated any hope the Spurs had of mounting a serious comeback. Houston is 19-2 when Gordon scores at least 20 points this season.

“The ball wasn’t just sticking around,” Gordon said, describing the difference between the last two games. “Guys weren’t hesitating to shoot, and that’s a big deal for us. When we play that way, it’s tough for anybody.”

That’s the blueprint for the Rockets. That’s how Harden, who shed the reputation of being a selfish star by leading the league in assists during his debut season in D’Antoni’s system, wants to play. In that regard, he has a lot of company in the Rockets’ locker room.

As Anderson put it: “It was a fun basketball game tonight.”