HOUSTON — You stare for a while at the Houston Rockets like one of those optical illusion posters you can buy at the mall, and an image appears. It fades in, then quickly out, but you know what you’re supposed to see. You know it’s there.
Saturday night was one of those moments. The Rockets (8-8) beat the Utah Jazz (9-9) 124-116 at Toyota Center. They shot 55 percent. They made 11 3-pointers. It looked like they found something with the pick-and-roll. James Harden and Jeremy Lin handle the ball, Patrick Patterson picks and then pops, Omer Asik picks and then rolls, and when it works – when Asik is dunking like the Rockets have begged him to, and Patterson is making 3s like he’s been practicing to — the Rockets look nice and clean and young and fresh.
Ah, but there’s a harbinger.
“We’re playing a little bit of a dicey game here,” acting coach Kelvin Sampson said. “We’re becoming a good offensive team, but there’s going to be some nights when we’re going to have to be a little tougher on defense. … Sometimes with a young team like us, they get pretty impressed with their offense.”
That was a fair criticism Saturday, when Utah shot 51 percent and made 11 3s of its own. Houston won the game on the foul line, where it made 21 free throws (out of 26) to Utah’s nine (of 11). Gordon Hayward led the Jazz with 21 points off the bench, while starters Randy Foye and Al Jefferson added 20 each. Patrick Patterson led Houston with 20, though seven Rockets hit double figures.
It was an offensive show, and that’s probably the way it’s going to be more often than not in Houston. This particular Rockets roster was never expected to be among the league’s best defensive teams. The entered the game ranked second-to-last in the NBA in points allowed (101.5 per game) and 24th in opponent field goal percentage (45.1).
These guys were, however, presumed to be difficult to guard, mainly on account of Harden and Lin and their ability to penetrate. When it didn’t look that way earlier in the year, everybody on the Rockets basically asked for a little patience. Just wait – you’ll see it.
Maybe this was just one good night against an average team, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Houston’s shooting percentage has been on a steady climb lately, and the Rockets have won five home games in a row, a streak that goes back two weeks. In that time, on their home floor, the Rockets are shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 45.5 percent from the 3-point line.
“We’re very unselfish,” guard Chandler Parsons said. “We’re moving the ball great right now. I think it’s just getting a feel for each other. It’s trusting each other. Moving the ball. Making the easy play.”
It does help when the shots go down, especially from a guy like Patterson, a power forward who to this point in his career has not been known for his outside shooting. But he went 8-for-17 Saturday, including 2-for-5 from the 3-point line. He’s shooting 52 percent this year, and 37 percent from the arc.
“I’m working on it every single day in practice, before and after,” he said. “My teammates having that confidence in my when I’m on makes me want to shoot the ball.”
You mix that with a newly aggressive Asik, who appears to have taken kindly to instructions to dunk the ball at every opportunity, and things start to open up a little.
“We’re able to space the floor more,” Parsons said.
The Rockets turned over the ball seven times in the first six minutes Saturday night, but otherwise controlled the game. The game got tight late in the fourth quarter, but Lin made back-to-back baskets on strong drives into the lane to put Houston up 118-111 with 2:00 left, and Asik sealed it with an and-one play on a putback with 1:20 left.
“They shared the ball,” Foye said. “James Harden distributed the ball really well. We loaded up on him and we took him away for the most part and he got other guys open shots.”