A jolting coaching change provided the Houston Rockets an immediate spark, much like the one the Memphis Grizzlies received from a recent trade.
After winning their debut under J.B. Bickerstaff, the Rockets head to Memphis on Friday night to take on a Grizzlies team that has yet to lose since acquiring Mario Chalmers.
In need of a wake-up call following a disappointing 4-7 start, the Rockets got one when Kevin McHale was fired on Wednesday, six months after leading the club to the Western Conference finals. The players, some of whom took blame for the sudden decision, responded with perhaps their most inspired effort of the season that night to rally for a 108-103 overtime win over Portland.
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James Harden shook off his own early season struggles to amass 45 points and 11 assists, and Corey Brewer scored 13 of his 16 in the fourth quarter – the final three on a 30-footer with 0.9 seconds remaining that forced overtime.
“If that shot changes the season around, I'm happy to make it, but now it's time to start winning,” Brewer said.
Though Bickerstaff made one notable lineup change, inserting Jason Terry as a starter in place of the slumping Ty Lawson, Harden made the biggest difference in a game the Rockets trailed by 17 late in the third quarter. Last season's NBA MVP runner-up recorded 17 points in the fourth and all of Houston's nine in overtime.
“Our guys were down, but for us to show perseverance, show fight, show the grit, toughness and togetherness speaks volumes,” Bickerstaff said.
Harden's up-and-down play has mirrored Houston's rocky start. He's averaged 39.8 points and shot 44.4 percent in the five wins, compared to 20.9 and 30.2 percent in the seven defeats.
“Making shots or missing shots, I've got to get my game where it needs to be to get this team where it wants to go,” he said. “Picking my energy up (Wednesday) was the beginning of it.”
Memphis (6-6) had been sputtering as well prior to obtaining Chalmers in a four-player trade with Miami on Nov. 10. The two-time NBA champion has thrived with his new team, averaging 18.0 points and going 7 of 12 from 3-point range in three games – all victories.
Chalmers made his biggest impact in Wednesday's 122-114 home win over Oklahoma City, tallying 29 points in 23 minutes for the highest-scoring output by a reserve in the league this season.
The eight-year veteran's play has made him an ironic fan favorite in a city he was once reviled for his memorable buzzer-beating 3-pointer that forced overtime in the 2008 national championship game, won by Chalmers' Kansas Jayhawks over the University of Memphis.
“The sky's the limit for this team and it always has been. I just try to bring what I can bring to the team,” Chalmers said. “Just try to learn from everybody and make sure we keep winning.”
Memphis is averaging 112.3 points and shooting 46.9 percent since the trade, compared to 90.2 points and 39.9 percent before it happened. Chalmers isn't the only one who has helped boost that production. Mike Conley has averaged 21.0 points in the last two games – he was previously at 12.5 – and Jeff Green has averaged 20.5 in two games since moving into a starter's role.
The Grizzlies are 5-0 when Green reaches double figures.
These teams split four 2014-15 meetings as well as two matchups at FedExForum. Harden averaged 19.3 points, his lowest number against a West foe last season.