The Houston Rockets are starting to gel after a rough stretch when new players were trying to find their place.
James Harden had 30 points and five assists to lead the Rockets to their third straight victory, 97-82 over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night.
”We’re catching a rhythm,” Harden said. ”Defensively, we look pretty solid. Offensively, we were sharing the basketball, and guys were scoring. It’s a free-for-all out there.”
Harden, the league’s leader in points per game, had his 15th 30-point game.
After acquiring Corey Brewer and Josh Smith within a week around Christmas, the Rockets lost five of seven. With their roles now clearly defined, things look promising in Houston.
”We had parts in the game where we moved the ball very, very well,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. ”We played in spurts all night long. We don’t want to do that, we want to be a little bit better.”
Harden made four of Houston’s 13 3-pointers, including two in the fourth quarter, to maintain the large lead built during a turnover-filled third quarter for Utah.
Houston used 16 steals and forced 31 turnovers to overcome poor first-half shooting.
Trey Burke and Enes Kanter both scored 16 for Utah, and Derrick Favors had 15 points in just 18 minutes.
Gordon Hayward, who leads the Jazz with 19.1 points per game, was held to just nine, as he was blanketed by Harden for much of his 30 minutes.
The Rockets struggled to find their shots early. They rank first in 3-pointers made, but missed 10 of their first 13 attempts. In the third quarter, however, Houston heated up, hitting four straight 3s during one stretch and 5 of 8 to pull away.
After the game was tied at 23 to end the first quarter, Houston’s defense clamped down in the second, forcing 10 of Utah’s 18 first-half turnovers in the frame.
The struggling Jazz hit their season high in turnovers midway through the third.
After winning five of their past seven games to close out the last two weeks of 2014, the Jazz have lost four of six to start 2015.
Utah coach Quin Snyder said the turnovers were more a tribute to Houston’s length and style of defense than shortcomings for the Jazz.
”They’re long, they’re quick, and they have Dwight Howard back there, protecting the rim so they can be even more aggressive,” Snyder said. ”That’s why they’re one of the top defensive teams in the league.”
Howard was held to just eight points and eight boards in 37 minutes.
The Jazz scored a season-low 14 points in the second quarter, and the Rockets led 46-37 at the half.
Behind Harden’s performance, Donatas Motiejunas had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Trevor Ariza, Smith and Patrick Beverley each had 10 points.
”We’re just trying to be a burst of energy,” Smith said of the veteran depth. ”Whenever we see the starters not really getting off to a good start, we try to be that energy and that enthused group to come out and get it going.”
Jazz: Kanter returned after a four-game absence after suffering a right ankle sprain on Jan. 2. Kanter scored 16 points and added six rebounds in 21 minutes. … C Rudy Gobert, who entered the game averaging a league-leading 5.0 blocks per game since Jan. 1, had three blocks, including two against Josh Smith.
Rockets: Ariza recorded his 12th game of 3-plus steals, which is tied for the third highest in the league. He finished with a game-high five. … After making just three free throws in a loss Wednesday at the Bulls, who made 27, the Rockets hit 18 to Utah’s 19. Houston improved to 10-9 when its opponent hits more from the stripe. The Rockets are 15-1 when they make more free throws.
Only three Utah starters played 30 minutes in the game, and Snyder said fatigue was a heavy factor.
Utah returns home on Tuesday to face a streaking Warriors team that has won six straight.
Rockets travel to Brooklyn to face the Nets on Monday.