Rockets 104, Kings 87
Despite missing leading scorer Kevin Martin and point guard Kyle Lowry for more than a month, the Houston Rockets are playing some of their best basketball of the season.
Courtney Lee scored 19 of his 25 points in the first half, leading the Rockets to a 104-87 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night.
Houston has won three straight and four of the last five, including a pair of road games, where they have struggled for much of the season. The Rockets, sixth in the Western Conference, moved one-half game ahead of defending champion Dallas.
Houston is getting consistent play from Goran Dragic at point guard and Lee has filled in admirably for Martin. Solid contributions from the other starters and many of the reserves has helped the Rockets win seven of their last 10.
''We're a deep team, everyone on this team can play,'' Lee said. ''We're moving the ball, we're executing on offense. Once we get all our guys back we'll be a pretty dangerous team.''
Martin watched the game in street clothes, but Lowry played for the first time after missing 15 games with a bacterial infection that required hospitalization. Lowry came off the bench in the first quarter and finished with one point and seven assists in 18 minutes.
''I was glad to be back. I wanted to play last game (Friday against the Lakers) but coach said no,'' Lowry said. ''It wasn't a break I wanted to take, but I definitely feel good.''
Dragic was a steady influence on offense, continually penetrating the Kings defense and finishing with 15 points and nine assists. Chase Budinger was a big factor in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 of his 15 points. Luis Scola added 13 points and eight rebounds, and Patrick Patterson had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Houston entered the game well rested, playing just twice over the previous seven days. Both were significant wins as the Rockets beat East-leading Chicago on the road and the visiting Lakers on Friday.
''We had a huge win at Chicago, now we've got two in a row on the road,'' Dragic said. ''This year we haven't played well on the road, but this would be a great time to start. We're playing very well as a team right now. We have great team chemistry.''
Terrence Williams had a season-high 21 points and eight rebounds for the Kings, losers of four straight and nine of 11. Rookie guard Jimmer Fredette, making his seventh start, made three 3-pointers and finished with 17 points in a season-high 37 minutes, and Isaiah Thomas added 16 points.
The Kings lost Saturday night in Los Angeles against the Clippers and looked sluggish against the Rockets.
''We have some injuries right now. Guys are down,'' Fredette said.''We just didn't have a lot of energy tonight. It's something we have to work on as a team.''
A surprise starter, Fredette got tested early by Lee. Defended by Fredette, Lee had a big first quarter with 17 points. The Houston guard scored several times off the break, but also victimized Fredette with three 3-pointers.
''Before the game I thought Tyreke Evans and Francisco (Garcia) were going to start, and when I saw that Jimmer was starting I wanted the ball a little more,'' Lee said. ''I was able to get going early, get to my spots and knock down some shots.''
Houston led by 22 points in the third quarter before the Kings cut the margin to 10 entering the fourth. However, the Rockets pulled away again as Budinger made a runner and followed with a 3-pointer to put Houston ahead 93-74 with 4:02 remaining.
The slumping Kings committed 12 turnovers in the first half and finished with 21.
Quiet in the first half, Scola made three jumpers early in the third quarter. A three-point play by Parsons put the Rockets ahead 69-47, their biggest lead of the game.
But the Kings quickly recovered. Switching to a zone defense with four reserves, and benefitting from the shot-altering capability of backup center Hassan Whiteside, the Kings ran off nine straight points and closed the quarter with a 16-4 run to pull to 73-63 heading into the fourth.
''The group that got us to eight points, I played those guys,'' said Kings coach Keith Smart, defending the move to keep DeMarcus Cousins, Evans and Jason Thompson on the bench for much of the second half. ''They did a great job getting us back to a manageable number. But of course, they ran out of gas.''
Houston led by 11 points after the first quarter and took a 58-43 lead into the break.
NOTES: Ex-King Martin is still nursing a shoulder injury and missed his 13th straight game. ... Houston shot 61 percent in the first quarter when it led 32-21. ... Kings F John Salmons has missed the last eight games with a sore hip and teammate Marcus Thornton has been out the last four with a bruised left calf. ... The Kings made 20 of 37 free throws.