HOUSTON – The best news these days in Houston is no news. The Rockets are jamming along in seventh place in the Western Conference, and the last thing they need is drama. Drama means trouble.
There was no drama Wednesday at Toyota Center. But there almost was. The Rockets never trailed and led by 26 points at the crest of the evening, but it wouldn’t have been a Rockets game if some shoddy defense didn’t allow an undead foe to spring back out of the coffin just as the dirt was hitting the lid. Utah got it down to five points with 1:29 left, but the Rockets scored the next two baskets and soon enough Kool and the Gang was urging everyone to celebrate good times.
Houston 100, Utah 93. No drama.
“Coach (Kevin McHale) was explaining the mathematics and the importance of this one,” Rockets forward Chandler Parsons said, “understanding the tiebreaker and the seeding and all that.”
The Rockets (37-31) left Wednesday’s game just as they entered it – in seventh place and one night closer to the playoffs. Maintenance is really the main goal around here these days. Nobody thinks this team is winning a championship, so the difference between seventh place and sixth or eighth place is academic (fifth place is out of the question). They put a little more space between themselves and the Jazz (34-34), who are in ninth place, a game and a half behind the Lakers for the final playoff spot and two games ahead of 10th-place Dallas with 14 games left to play.
But now that the Rockets have a core in place – James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik – it is important they get that taste of the playoffs the organization hasn’t had since Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming were the headliners. So boring nights like Wednesday night are good nights.
And now we get to the business of how the Rockets did it.
Harden, of course, scored a bunch. He got 29 points on 14 field goal attempts, hitting 17 of 18 free throws. Performances like that are the caffeine in Houston’s coffee. For sugar and cream, you can add Jeremy Lin’s 24 points, Carlos Delfino’s nine off the bench or Omer Asik’s 12 rebounds.
Without Gordon Hayward the Jazz wouldn’t even have been competitive. They scored just 33 points in the first half, which was one fewer point than any Houston opponent has scored in a half all season. Hayward scored 22 of his 27 points in the second half and it was Hayward’s free throws that cut Houston’s lead to five at the 1:29 mark.
But this was not Utah’s night. It shouldn’t have been. It didn’t deserve to be.
“It’s hard to dig yourself out of a hole on somebody else’s court,” Jazz big man Al Jefferson said.
The Rockets’ perspective was a little different, of course. The way they saw it the Jazz totally could have dug itself out of a hole on Houston’s home court, and the Rockets would have had nobody to blame but themselves.
“We started nursing the lead, which you can’t do that,” McHale said.
McHale mentioned that he is still trying to figure out what to do with forwards Donatas Motiejunas and Thomas Robinson, neither of whom was in the rotation a month ago. That had something to do with it, especially on defense, and especially against a team that likes to feed the post the way the Utah does. Couple of rookies, basically.
And maybe on some other night against some other team, the Rockets would have paid the price for that. Maybe things get a little more dramatic, which is to say bad.
But not Wednesday.
“We had gotten down by 20 in the last two games in the first half,” Lin said. “So we wanted to make sure tonight that we build the lead for once so we weren’t always playing uphill.”