The Rockets got to one game within .500 on Thursday night with a home victory over the Utah Jazz, 103-94. In a game of two halves, the Rockes once again showed flashes of a shadow of the great team they were last year, despite being down Dwight Howard, who tweaked his back in warmups, and Donatas Motiejunas, out again with his long-term back issue. That said, the Jazz were in even worse shape, missing Alec Burks and Derrick Favors, and with Rodney Hood leaving early in the third quarter and Rudy Gobert restricted to 15 minutes.
It was an awful outside shooting night for the Rockets, but wouldn't you know it, they kept penetrating and finishing at the hoop, and getting to the line, and they grinded it out. James Harden had the starkest disparity, finishing with 33 points on 13-25 shooting, including 0-7 from three-point range.
The entire first half was a snoozefest in which the Rockets only scored 39 points, punctuated by the saddest turnover you'll ever see from Harden.
But the second half was the polar opposite! The Rockets sped up their defensive rotations, turned steals into fast-break points, and their regularly scheduled horrible turnover just made everyone laugh instead:
First of all, don't stand in the corner like that, Trevor! But Jason Terry was clearly the culprit here. Count the bodies, Jason. And yet it wasn't all lowlights. Montrezl Harrell looked feisty all game, and hammered home this fast break dunk after he stripped a ball-handler:
That was savage. Harden was engaged defensively in the third and early in the fourth, and it showed. The whole team took his cue and rotated quickly. When Harden lost focus midway through the fourth while guarding Chris Johnson, it broke the whole team's scheme, Johnson had a 7-point run and an assist to a huge Trevor Booker slam, and the Jazz were right back in the game. The whole team tightened up down the stretch however, forcing a couple key turnovers, and they closed it out with relative ease.
It's hard to be too mad at Harden though, as aside from the above boneheaded turnover (and a couple of others), he was truly great on offense tonight. A couple of other players had two- or three-bucket bursts over the course of the game, but Harden's scoring was the constant all night.
Besides Harden, the Rocket who distinguished himself the most was Montrezl Harrell. Sure, when he was matched up with Gobert he got roasted, but he's listed at 6'8" and Gobert is a humongous tentacle monster. But he was energetic if unpolished as always on the defensive end, and just about the same on the offensive end. That may seem like faint praise, but energy is what the Rockets have lacked so often this season. With Harrell (especially combined with Jason Terry and, yes, Corey Brewer), they have that energy in spades.
Maybe it was Harrell's extra minutes, maybe it wasn't. But for whatever reason, in that second half, the Rockets just felt like themselves again. They were barely competent from three, but they ran and penetrated and hit just enough to keep the Jazz scrambling. Against a team with more warm bodies, though, it wouldn't have mattered because the first half was so terrible. It's still not all sunshine and rainbows in Houston, despite the fact that the Rockets are only a half-game(!) out of that necessary sixth seed in the Western Conference.
Next up on the schedule is a road game against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday. Trevor Ariza did some good work against Gordon Hayward, but Paul George will severely test him and the rest of the Rockets.