• Print

Game Day: Rockets at Suns

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 115-112 win over the Phoenix Suns

  • Rockets vs. Suns
    Dwight Howard scores 25 points, James Harden has 23 and Patrick Beverley adds 20 for the Rockets, who escape with 115-112 victory over the Suns.
  • Rockets vs. Suns: First half
    The Rockets lead the Suns at the half 60-56 despite 25 points from Goran Dragic.
  • Sick Dwight Lob
    Patrick Beverley lobs it to Dwight Howard who catches it with the left-hand and crushes it down.
  • Oop to Howard
    Chandler Parsons tosses it up top to Dwight Howard who hammers it down over the defender.
  • Howard finds Jones
    Dwight Howard delivers the great pass to Terrence Jones who finishes with the slam plus the foul.

PHOENIX - On the surface, it seems rather significant that a pair of second-year players figured so prominently into the Rockets’ heart stopping 115-112 victory over the Phoenix Suns Sunday night. For Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas to step up the way they did down the stretch – on the road amid a hostile, playoff-style atmosphere no less – surely represents a mile marker of sorts, both for themselves and the team that provides their paychecks. The Rockets are going to need sizeable contributions from each if they’re to accomplish the supersized dreams and aspirations they’re harboring this season, and the more frequently guys like Beverley and D-Mo deliver come crunch time, the more confident this club will become by the time the postseason rolls around.

suns-gallery-link-022314.jpg

But know this: Beverley and Motiejunas are not your typical, run-of-the-mill second-year players. These are not some fresh faced, wet behind the ears newbies unaccustomed to the searing glare of the white-hot hoops spotlight. No amount of vitriol or invective Suns fans hurled Beverley’s way could ever compare to the road games he played in Russia, where coins, batteries and the like were frequently hurled in the direction of the opposition’s players. And Motiejunas has had his fair share of pressure-packed minutes overseas as well, logging minutes for the Lithuanian national team while representing a country that counts basketball as its primary sporting religion.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be at all surprising that both players rose to the occasion Sunday on a night when the Rockets found themselves in dire straits after the Suns stormed back from an 18-point first quarter deficit to claim a double-digit lead for themselves heading into the fourth quarter. Dwight Howard had dominated offensively in the early going so by the time the final frame rolled around, Phoenix was sending hard double-teams his way nearly every time he touched the ball. P.J. Tucker, meanwhile, was applying such heavy pressure to James Harden, that Houston frequently had difficulty just getting the ball into its primary playmaker’s hands down the stretch.

Into that void stepped Beverley, who put in double-duty in the fourth quarter, pairing his trademark defensive doggedness against the fire-breathing Goran Dragic with a veritable offensive explosion of his own, dropping 12 of his 20 points in the period to help Houston overcome not just the Suns, but its own error-prone ways as well. The Rockets turned the ball over 22 times, directly leading to 29 Phoenix points. But with the game hanging in the balance, Beverley’s full-court presence helped Houston tilt the balance of power back in its favor, culminating with the clutch 3-pointer he sandwiched between two massive defensive rebounds in the final minute, giving the Rockets a lead they would not relinquish again.

“Patrick’s not afraid at all,” said Kevin McHale, as if nothing more needed to be said on the subject. That very same sentiment also applies to Motiejunas, who played heavy minutes in the game-defining fourth quarter and hit a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left that helped Houston hold onto its edge. Despite having hit less than 59 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe this season, D-Mo tellingly strode to the line as if he were Steve Nash.

“I heard their coach tell Markieff (Morris) to (make Houston) give me the ball and foul. And I was thinking: that’s a stupid idea. It was their choice. That’s what they wanted to do, and it was great.

“The last free throws, you cannot be scared or afraid of them. If you’re scared then you’re never going to make it. You have to go with confidence and as soon as you go with confidence and concentration, that's it.”

Imagine that: role players playing with no fear; the Rockets reversing momentum on the road; victory when all seemed lost. These are signs of growth; signs of a roster congealing and coalescing; signs that this team and its players are becoming battle-hardened and steeled with the season’s stretch run now upon them and the playoffs a mere two months away.

“If this was 30 games ago, I think we would have lost by 15 or 16 points,” said Beverley. “The character that we’ve shown throughout the whole season, fighting through adversity, getting better every day in practice, standing together no matter what, winning on the road – all that comes into play and (explains) why we’re a different team than we were 20-30 games ago.”

That fact was hammered home on a night when the Rockets rode into Phoenix and escaped with a pulse pounding, heart stopping win. This victory stood out. It meant a little more. That much was apparent by the joyful shouts of Beverley when Dragic’s final 3 came up short and the Rockets could finally exhale.

This win was unique. It was distinct. It was uncommon. No different than the two second-year players who proved yet again that when the game hangs in the balance, they are not afraid to make plays and they are not afraid of failure.

And that is why they succeed. 

POST-GAME OBSERVATIONS

- As far as fun first halves go, you won’t find too many finer than the show the Rockets and Suns produced tonight. Taking center stage were two All-Star caliber players; one who actually made it to the NBA’s marquee event in New Orleans and another who spent the first 24 minutes reaffirming the fact that he should have been on the floor that night as well.

Dwight Howard and Goran Dragic were at their dominant, dazzling best Sunday, with Howard owning the paint to the tune of 18 points, seven boards and two blocked shots in the first half, while the Suns’ star went supernova, exploding for 25 points through the first two quarters of play – 19 of which came in the second period alone.

But both players’ impact went far beyond the eye-popping stat lines they delivered. Howard was so good protecting the rim, he adversely affected shots even when he wasn’t around. The Suns missed a bevy of bunnies near the basket whenever he was on the floor, hammering home the fact that blocked shots often don’t tell half the story when it comes to measuring the kind of impact an elite defender like Howard has a nightly basis. And on the other end of the court, Houston’s eight-time All-Star played a huge role in the Rockets’ 40-14 edge in paint points at halftime, with no two tallies nearly as spectacular as the jaw-dropping, left-handed alley-oop slam he threw down in the second quarter.

Dragic, meanwhile, spent the entirety of the second period torturing his former team with a shooting display that seemed as if it had been ripped right out of the Chandler Parsons and Trevor Ariza playbooks. Dragic drained five 3-pointers in the period, helping Phoenix overcome an 18-point deficit and briefly take the lead before Howard helped Houston restore order. By halftime, the Rockets led 60-56 and everyone in the arena required the assistance of an oxygen mask to help them catch their breath.

- Conspicuous by his quietness in the first half: James Harden was just 1-of-7 from the floor, continuing his struggles versus the Suns this season. Coming into the game, Harden had averaged just 18.5 points per game against Phoenix while shooting less than 26 percent from the field.

- Houston obviously doesn't score after every second chance opportunity Pat Beverley creates, but it sure feels like it sometimes. Case in point: with Phoenix feeling it and on another roll early in the third quarter, Beverley’s steal of a Miles Plumlee defensive board directly led to a momentum-dulling James Harden 3. Such plays often get overlooked when the dust has settled and the post-game focus inevitably settles on what occurred in the final minutes, but these bonus possessions and points really add up and they count just as much when the final accounting is done. For proof, just check out the final score.

- Turnovers, especially those of the live-ball variety, are a cardinal sin when playing the Suns, and the Rockets had a great deal of atoning to do after coughing it up eight times in the third period alone. As they are wont to do, Phoenix frequently turned those miscues into one high percentage, fast break scoring opportunity after another while seizing their biggest lead (10) of the game and racking up 37 points in the quarter.

Very little went Houston’s way in the penultimate period and even the bits that did found a way to turn sour. Harden finally heated up, but had to sit when he picked up a cheap fourth foul. And just to put an exclamation point on Houston’s frame of shame, Gerald Green banked in a 3-pointer from Flagstaff to beat the end-of-period buzzer, capping a quarter in which the mercurial, high-flying two-guard totaled 18 points.

- In a game that featured more mood swings than a lovesick teen, it seemed only appropriate that the final period would add several more into the mix. The Rockets responded to their miserable third period by locking down on defense and playing with considerably more poise, focus and intensity. And at the center of it all was … wait for it … Patrick Beverley (you were expecting Harden or Howard, right?).

Houston’s livewire starting point guard provided his trademark bulldog defense, harassing Dragic for the full 94-feet time and time again, but it was his offense of all things that really came to the fore in the final frame. With P.J. Tucker’s physical D preventing Houston from running its offense through Harden, the Rockets desperately needed someone else to take the reins and get the club quality looks as it attempted to rally from a double-digit deficit. Beverley stepped up and then some, scoring 12 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter, including a coldblooded (copyright: Bill Worrell, all rights reserved) 3 to give his club the lead for good. Your final: 115-112 for Houston.

- What a game. What a night of NBA basketball. Just a remarkable, playoff-caliber contest and an equally remarkable Rockets’ rally when it looked for all the world as if this team’s proverbial goose was going to get proverbially cooked. We see it every spring: wannabe title contenders have to have role players step up and help them steal a game every now and then. Beverley (and Donatas Motiejunas, who played some big fourth quarter minutes and hit a pair of huge, high stakes, high pressure free throws in the final seconds) delivered the goods tonight.

- The Rockets’ win puts them 20 games above .500 again, with a record of 38-18. Up next for Houston is a Tuesday night date with Sacramento before the Rockets finish their west coast road swing in Los Angeles against the Clippers the next day.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

(on Beverley’s play down the stretch)

Patrick’s not afraid at all. He just goes and plays. He made a huge 3 and made two big free throws.

Goran put on a helluva show in the second quarter. He was on fire. In third quarter we had turnover after turnover. Our offense fueled their offense. Then in the fourth quarter we stopped turning it over as much and we got a chance to get them slowed down again. It was a game in which, once we stopped fueling their break with our turnovers, we were able to get a little bit of something going. Then we made some big plays down the stretch.

It was a good win. We had a big lead, let it get away, came back from down 10 in the fourth to win the game – that was a helluva win by us.

DONATAS MOTIEJUNAS

(on his two clutch free throws)

I heard their coach tell Markieff (Morris) to (make Houston) give me the ball and foul. And I was thinking: that’s a stupid idea. It was their choice. That’s what they wanted to do, and it was great.

(on the value of guys like him and Beverley making big plays late in a tight game)

That just gives us extra confidence because we see that coach believes in us and trusts us so I think that’s real important.

I was not scared. It’s just free throws. Either you miss or you make them.

The last free throws, you cannot be scared or afraid of them. If you’re scared then you’re never going to make it. You have to go with confidence and as soon as you go with confidence and concentration, that's it.

JAMES HARDEN

(on the value of having young guys come through in crunch time)

You know what? They work out every single day. They work on their game and I have confidence in them to go out there and make shots and make plays and they did that tonight. The more guys we can have confident in end-of-game situations like that, the more guys will step up and get it done.

PAT BEVERLEY

I just tried to do little things and shoot open shots. James made a phenomenal play at the end. You’ve got to understand teams are locking down James and Dwight and I was open in the weakside corner and he made a phenomenal play. That was a big shot but the way we fought the fourth quarter, the way we defended the fourth quarter really was the key to this game.

I’ve played in probably the second-biggest game in basketball – the Euroleague Championship – with fans going crazy so I’m used to hostile environments.

If this was 30 games ago, I think we would have lost by 15 or 16 points. The character that we’ve shown throughout the whole season, fighting through adversity, getting better every day in practice, standing together no matter what, winning on the road – all that comes into play and (explains) why we’re a different team than we were 20-30 games ago.

PHOENIX SUNS HEAD COACH JEFF HORNACEK           

(On going cold in the fourth quarter from three)

“Well, they got us back in the game – you know, we started the game off poorly. They wanted it more in the beginning and they took it right at us, then you’re battling back. You might get the lead but then it went the other way. The fourth quarter I felt like we had some decent looks, but some of them were forced. When the game is on the line they made they plays. Beverley hit a big shot so it’s their credit.”

(On his quick timeout to start the fourth quarter)

“We came in the half saying we need to get back on defense and the first play they run right down and get an easy layup. It’s that same starting group that got us in a hole in the first place so I just wanted to get on top of it right off the bat and try to not let that happen again, what happened in the first quarter.”

(On Patrick Beverley)

“The guy made plays. He was active, he’s always out there being aggressive defensively and then offensively he’s a good player. That’s why he starts for them. That’s a good team. He did the job tonight.”

(On Houston’s production from the free throw line) “They shoot a lot of free throws. They’re good at getting the ball inside they’re good at driving the ball and kind of leaning in. We tend to have more jump shots, so that’s just the way it was tonight from the line. Again, they got them but they made them – they were 28-for-32 that probably won them the game.”

PHOENIX SUNS GUARD GORAN DRAGIC

(On the game)

“We cannot afford to start the games like that. We were down 18 points and it takes a lot of energy to come back. And after that your tank is empty in the fourth quarter and because of that we lost the game.”

(On Houston’s fast start)

“They got a lot of easy baskets especially uncontested shots and layups. I think when you do that it’s a high percentage shot and you start feeling well and then of course your confidence is much higher. They were feeling good at the beginning of the game. We fought back and took the lead but unfortunately they made some big shots and we didn’t.”

PHOENIX SUNS GUARD GERALD GREEN

(On game)

“My role this season has been to keep shooting and stay aggressive. I try to make plays when I can. I know right now a lot of defenses are playing me tight so a lot of times I’m able to make passes but tonight the shots were falling.”

(On Coach Hornacek)

“As long as you do what [Jeff Hornacek] wants you to do, which is execute the offense and play defense the way he wants it played, he will let you go out there and play your game. But you have to play your game. If you can’t shoot don’t try to shoot. You have to stay within your game.”