But instead, they dug deep, stayed the course, and continued to fight the good fight against a title-contending team for the second straight game. Ultimately, the game eventually did start to get away from them as the defending Western Conference champion Suns used their experience and talent to create a big enough gap for them to stay out of the danger zone - but that’s expected.
Still, though, the Rockets made them sweat. And although they still had a high turnover count, finishing with 18, they noticeably had big nights from beyond the arc, knocking down 11-31 along with an efficient night at the free-throw line where they shot 24/28. Their non-erratic post-game statistics paint a picture of why they were able to play Phoenix so tightly and even hold a lead that was growing throughout the third quarter; until the Suns were able to find momentum and put themselves in a comfortable enough spot to win the game.
When you have these close battles against superior teams, there either is a player that put on a world-class performance or a group of guys that was vastly effective. For the Rockets, it was the latter.
They were led in scoring by Kevin Porter Jr., who shot 7-17 from the field while scoring 20 points, grabbing 6 rebounds, and dishing out 3 assists. His handle, quickness, and strength made him a tough task for Phoenix when driving to the rim which seemed to invoke confidence in him which might be why he finished the game with only 2 turnovers. Don’t look now, but Porter Jr. is starting to look like his old self again.
Christian Wood also had a big night, perhaps the biggest, as he scored 18 points and pulled down 15 rebounds while also piling up 5 assists. Wood has without question been the most consistent player to wear a Houston jersey this year due to his reliability, which has him taking steps towards being the guy the Rockets lean on throughout the year.
On the defensive end, Jae-Sean Tate was tasked with matchups that often consisted of Chris Paul or Devin Booker but was able to hold his own on numerous possessions. Asking him to lock either of those guys up would be explicably insane due to their scoring prowess, but he was able to somewhat contain them when standing in front of them. He also scored 14 points, pulled down 5 rebounds, and had 5 assists, which is exactly what the Rockets want to see when they silently dubbed him as their defensive ace. The more nights he has like Thursday, the more he cements his place as a core guy amongst this rebuild.
While Jalen Green had a rough shooting night (4-13), he was able to be effective when attacking the basket, which led to eight free throw attempts from a guy who had a hard time getting a whistle from the officials earlier in the year. He knocked down each of those attempts, hit 2-7 of his looks from beyond the arc, and showed an ability to create for others by throwing out 3 assists and looking crafty while doing it.
As mentioned earlier, it was a group of guys that were vastly effective, and the final two notable mentions are Eric Gordon and Alperen Sengun. While Gordon was scoring 10 points and drilling 2 shots from three-point land, Sengun was battling in the paint and even tacked a couple of fouls onto DeAndre Ayton, who eventually fouled out in the final quarter. Sengun had five fouls, but guarding the Sun's onslaught towards the paint is a tall task for anyone, let alone a rookie.
To win this game, Houston probably was in need of a guy that goes nuclear to close the game but at this stage of the season they just don’t have that yet; which isn’t a big deal, but still is the reason why they don’t win these tight games.
Overall, a strong performance from a team that just stressed out the Lakers in their last outing is extremely positive because now, even though the results were losses, they’re gaining momentum and starting to see things click, which is vital for a young core that the Rockets plan on keeping around.
There are nights on the rebuild when you either celebrate, nod your head with interest or groan and it certainly feels as if there were a lot of Houston fans left nodding their heads after that effort against Phoenix.