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Rockets can play defense after all, beat Mavs 106-98

Houston bounces back from the opening night loss with a big win over their cross-state rival.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

One game after looking like they couldn’t guard anyone, the Rockets played with energy and enthusiasm on the defensive end, particularly in the second half, to spark a 106-98 victory over the Dirk Nowitzki-less Mavericks.

The Rockets were led in scoring by Trevor Ariza’s 27 points. He shot 8-12 from the field and 5-7 from deep and also pitched in 4 rebounds and a steal to bounce back from a tough opening game against the Lakers.

James Harden finished with 26 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists, and despite starting off slow, scoring zero points in the opening frame, it was his three consecutive triples to close the third period that really broke open the game for the Rockets.

But the true star of the game was the Houston defense. They held Dallas to 43.8 percent shooting from the field overall and just 17 points scored in the decisive third period. They also outrebounded Dallas 41-34 and generally looked more engaged both defending and on the boards most of the night. Sure, the Mavs were missing their best scorer, but the Rockets obviously had a renewed focus on defending, and it showed, Diggler or no Diggler.

Houston also got a nice game from K.J. McDaniels. We asked for more K.J., and Mike D’Antoni delivered us more K.J., as he got 22 minutes of burn tonight. McDaniels played aggressive defense that helped set the tone in the second half and also scored 9 points, including this sick double-pump jam over Andrew Bogut.

The Rockets also got a second straight solid performance from Eric Gordon. He continued to show he’s a good fit for this team and this system by scoring 18 points , including going 3-6 from beyond the arc. He also stepped up his playmaking when Harden took a breather, dishing out 6 assists and combining with Tyler Ennis for a much more under control offense when the Beard was out. Ennis contributed 4 dimes.

The Rockets did get very little from their bigs tonight, as Nene once again looked a step slow, though he’s apparently been playing through and toughing out a thigh injury. And Ryan Anderson was once again ineffective on both offense and defense. In fact, D’Antoni even benched him down the stretch for McDaniels, as the Rockets’ biggest free agent acquisition played just 25 minutes and scored only 5 points while grabbing 4 rebounds.

Clint Capela grabbed 9 rebounds and blocked a shot tonight, but couldn’t get the pick and roll going much with Harden, scoring just 4 points on 2-5 shooting. And though he did have this highlight reel slam of a Beard dish, the Rockets are going to need more from all of their bigs moving forward.

All in all, it was a much-needed Houston victory to get the Rockets to 1-1, and if they can defend this well on the nights the offense is also humming, they have a chance to be dangerous.

The Rockets play the Mavericks again on Sunday night at home. Dallas likely has Nowtzki back, who was suffering from a flu bug, so we’ll see then how the Houston front line deals with a good scorer.

For now, though, it’s a collective sigh of relief. The Rockets look like they can play some defense after all.