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Monday March 21, 2011 0:21 AM

Rockets Hit Winning Note Against Jazz

Lowry's triple-double leads Houston to fourth straight win, 110-108 victory over Utah

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - How many countless times over the last few years has some variation of the following statement been heard?

The Rockets can’t consistently win close games because they don’t have a closer.

Forget for a moment whether or not such a sentiment is even accurate. Focus instead on what attributes a true closer is supposed to possess. The ability to take – and make – big shots probably ranks right at the top. Fans certainly want their clutch heroes to have an unflappable toughness come crunch time. But more than anything, it’s about having someone you know your team can give the ball to when it needs a big basket, while being fully confident in his ability to create a quality shot for either himself or one of his teammates.

Now take all of that into consideration, affix your gaze on Kyle Lowry and ask yourself this: Have the Rockets found their closer?

His rapidly-expanding resume of big plays seems to grow by the game. He’s absolutely fearless on the floor in all situations. And watch the way he runs the Rockets’ offense, masterfully making sure his club gets good looks at the basket time after time, both in transition and in the half-court.

What’s more, as the games grow in importance, Lowry’s play continues to reach new heights. Houston has essentially been competing in playoff games for nearly a month now since the Rockets’ margin for error for qualifying for the real postseason is so razor thin. Through it all Lowry has been playing like a legitimate All Star, averaging nearly 20 points, 8 assists and three 3s per game during the month of March. And in what amounts to an emphatic stamp on his clutch credentials passport, the fourth-year guard out of Villanova rose to the occasion once more Sunday night, helping Houston secure a massively important 110-108 victory over Utah by recording his first career triple-double with 28 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

The Jazz know all about such stat lines because their former point guard Deron Williams used to post similar numbers on a regular basis – quite the interesting coincidence since Williams is the one Lowry is doing a very fine impression of these days. Lowry himself might prefer an in-his-prime Chauncey Billups comparison since that’s the point guard he says he’s modeled his game after, but either way you’re talking about guys with a history of closing games for their teams and being darn good at doing so.

“He makes very good plays and what I really like about Kyle is he knows the strengths of the guys he’s playing with,” said Rockets Head Coach Rick Adelman about his point guard’s ability to orchestrate Houston’s offense down the stretch of close games. “Kyle’s been the guy that we’ve leaned on, he’s been the playmaker. He’s just been terrific and you can’t say enough about him.”

Of course, part of the myth of the NBA closer is that he wills his team to victory on his own. But regardless of the hype, hyperbole and rhetoric, no club has ever won a game 1-on-5. Basketball was, is and always has been a team game. Besides, doesn’t the sign of a truly great player lie in his ability to make those around him better and in his capacity to engender confidence in his teammates come crunch time as well?

Here, too, Lowry is making his mark. He’s always the first to credit those around him and there’s no question the Rockets would not have won Sunday without Kevin Martin’s prolific scoring and clutch free throw shooting down the stretch and Chuck Hayes’ ho-hum, he-did-it-again defense which limited Al Jefferson to 7-of-23 shooting from the floor. Patrick Patterson provided a huge boost as well, energizing his team early in the fourth quarter by scoring 6 straight Rockets points. Now rewind the DVR and watch that sequence a little closer. Guess who assisted on two of those three buckets, including Patterson’s monster jam that sent a jolt of electricity through the Toyota Center crowd? That’s right. Kyle. Freaking. Lowry.

“He’s our floor general,” said Chuck Hayes. “He’s going to get whoever is in rhythm their shot. If it’s for himself, he’ll know and he’ll ask for a high pick and roll and if it’s for Kevin he’ll get something for Kevin. But right now he’s playing great, not only from a statistical standpoint but from a leader standpoint and a floor general standpoint.”

To be sure, Lowry will have to prove he can do this over the long haul before the general public deems him worthy of standing alongside noted big game, big moment players like Williams and Billups. But the sample size is growing by the game. The numbers he’s producing right now are downright special. And as any closer worth his reputation does, Lowry’s leadership is serving to buoy the Rockets’ belief that they, too, can collectively conjure magic of their own down the stretch of both close games and the rest of the season that awaits them.

“These guys, they’re laying it out on the line,” said Adelman. “Everything they’ve got, they’re laying it out there right now. They know what’s ahead of them, they know what’s going on and they’re busting their tails. I think that’s the difference. The attitude is we’re going to do whatever it takes to win the game.”

The results speak for themselves. The Rockets are riding high, having won four in a row and 11 of 14 since the All Star break. Lowry has been a huge reason why. Is he this club’s closer? Evidence which speaks to the affirmative is rapidly accumulating and it’s creating quite the compelling case.

But at least for the time being, this much is certain: if Kyle Lowry maintains this extraordinary level of play, the question won’t focus on his closing credentials for much longer; the spotlight will shine instead on the heights to which he can help carry a club that suddenly seems capable of anything.

And 1s: Chase Budinger was forced from the game in the second quarter after rolling his left ankle when he stepped on Paul Millsap’s foot. The injury was labeled a mid to moderate sprain and Budinger was unable to return. He will be re-evaluated Monday, though the second-year player indicated after the game that the pain was not as severe as what he experienced when he sprained the same ankle earlier in the year and missed a few weeks of action as a result.

“When I first did it, it came (as) a shock but as I was going back to the training room, it didn’t feel as bad,” he said. “Right now it doesn’t feel too bad. Definitely not as bad as it has in the past. Only time will tell. I’ll wake up tomorrow and that will indicate how bad it really is… Hopefully I can be ready for our road trip.”

As for how the Rockets’ rotation might change if Chase is forced to miss some time, Rockets head Coach Rick Adelman expects to lean heavily on Courtney Lee while also experimenting with Patrick Patterson at the small forward position.

“We’re going to try a few things,” he said. “We’re going to do some things in practice on Tuesday. We’re going to look into seeing if we can bring somebody in and also I’m going to see if there are times where we can throw Patrick there because I believe he can play there, it’s just offensively how do you use him. And like tonight… I put Goran in with Kyle and Courtney. It puts a lot on Courtney’s shoulders if Chase can’t play because he’s our small forward right now.”

QUOTES

RICK ADELMAN

Just a terrific win. I don’t have to say how good Kyle was. He was just unbelievable tonight. They guys really sucked it up and fought the whole game with Chase going down. Just a great win by our guys.

(Kyle turning into the Rockets’ closer?): He makes very good plays and what I really like about Kyle is he knows the strengths of the guys he’s playing with… Kyle’s been the guy that we’ve leaned on, he’s been the playmaker. He’s just been terrific and you can’t say enough about him.

(team’s mentality in closing games): These guys, they’re laying it out on the line. Everything they’ve got, they’re laying it out there right now. They know what’s ahead of them, they know what’s going on and they’re busting their tails. I think that’s the difference. The attitude is we’re going to do whatever it takes to win the game. I think that’s what they did tonight. They knew we were playing a team that was right there with us and we have to win this game at home, we had to get this season series with them.

A lot of times in the regular season because of the schedule, things are going on and sometimes you don’t get that, but right now we have it and we know what we’re going to do at the end of the game, we know the things that we want to try to run and who we’re going to go to.

(on how the rotations changes if Chase is out): We’re going to try a few things. We’re going to do some things in practice on Tuesday. We’re going to look into seeing if we can bring somebody in and also I’m going to see if there are times where we can throw Patrick there because I believe he can play there, it’s just offensively how do you use him. And like tonight… I put Goran in with Kyle and Courtney. It puts a lot on Courtney’s shoulders if Chase can’t play because he’s our small forward right now. That’s what we’re going to try to do.

CHASE BUDINGER

(on his ankle injury): When I first did it, it came (as) a shock but as I was going back to the training room, it didn’t feel as bad. Right now it doesn’t feel too bad. Definitely not as bad as it has in the past. Only time will tell. I’ll wake up tomorrow and that will indicate how bad it really is… Hopefully I can be ready for our road trip.

KEVIN MARTIN

We’re a lot more disciplined. Other guys are more confident going down the stretch and they know they’re going to get there minutes. So we just have to continue to do it and play our game.

(on Kyle’s triple-double): Congrats to him. He was a big key to our victory. He’s a big key to how we’ve been playing ever since after the All Star break. You knew it was coming just because he was all over the court.

CHUCK HAYES

(on dealing with Al Jefferson): I knew I had a bad shooting night but it felt like he didn’t. But now I look at the box score, it makes my effort feel appreciated now.

(could you not tell during the game that he was Jefferson was struggling?): I did not know he was struggling that bad. They don’t have hit shooting percentage up on the scoreboard, they just have his stat line. And when you see (17) points and (19) rebounds, I’m just thinking oh man, here we go again. But now that I see that 7-for-23, I’ll take that.

(On Kyle becoming the closer for this team): The way Kyle’s playing right now, he’s our floor general. He’s going to get whoever is in rhythm their shot. If it’s for himself, he’ll know and he’ll ask for a high pick and roll and if it’s for Kevin he’ll get something for Kevin. But right now he’s playing great, not only from a statistical standpoint but from a leader standpoint and a floor general standpoint.

KYLE LOWRY

(On the win) “They (Jazz) made some big 3s and we made our free throws at the end which was huge. We pulled it out and made some free throws and got the win.”

(On his first career triple double) “I’m happy about it, my first career triple double. It's better with the win.”

(On whether or not he could sense the desperation of both teams down the stretch) “The intensity of that game was very competitive and it seemed like no one wanted to give in and we definitely didn't and they (Jazz) definitely didn't. They fought down to the last seconds.”

We have to execute at the end of games. I think it’s not that you play, it’s just that you make sure you do what you’ve got to do to try to win the game.

PATRICK PATTERSON

(On his play) “I was trying to stay active and provide a lot of energy running up and down the court and also just hitting the glass. The coaches kept telling me to rebound and that's what I was trying to focus a lot on and every time I'm on the perimeter, I'm going to try to look for my shot, especially, if I'm open and my teammates want me to shoot it.”

(On the Rockets maintaining the 4th quarter lead) “It was huge that we had Kyle (Lowry) and Kevin (Martin) down the stretch. They were able to knock down shots and pretty much take over the game and key points and we needed that. (Paul) Millsap and (Al) Jefferson did not give up. Millsap was hitting shots and keeping them (Jazz) in the game. They (Jazz) were doing the fouling and hoping that we would miss the shots. Luckily, we had Kyle knocking down all the jump shots and Kevin (Martin) knocking down crucial free throws.”

UTAH JAZZ COACH TYRONE CORBIN

(On the game) “It was a tough loss. We did a good job and our effort was good but in the fourth quarter we gave up 7 offensive rebounds and that really hurt us. We keep fighting and we gave ourselves a chance to win. We did a decent job on Houston in the second half. We tried to deny Kevin Martin the ball down the stretch but he is so good and very tough to guard. He hit 18 of 18 free throws and that is pretty good.”

(On Millsap’s return to the line up) “It was great to have him back. Paul was tremendous on both ends of the court, both offensively and defensively.”

(On Kyle Lowry’s play) “He was tremendous and has gotten better every game. He is doing a good job running their offense. He was in control of the tempo for Houston and made all of the smart plays down the stretch.”

ANDREI KIRILENKO

(On the game) “It was a good intense game. Houston was just more successful at the end. Give them credit. They played better and won the game. I think we did a better job defending their 3 pointers in the second half.”

AL JEFFERSON

(On the game) “We made a lot of mistakes and still had a chance to win. A lot of little mistakes that cost us at the end. You have to give Chuck Hayes a lot of credit. He always plays me well. I couldn’t help my team as much as I wanted to.”

CJ MILES

(On the game) “We played hard and the effort was there. We gave up too many offensive rebounds down the stretch. At the end when we had to put them on the free throw line and they kept making them.”

(On Kyle Lowry’s play) “He was great. He pushed the ball and got his guys the ball where they wanted it. When he makes shots like that he is really tough to stop. He made the big plays for them.”

DEVIN HARRIS

(On the game) “It’s a game of stops and we didn’t get key stops down the stretch. Our effort was there but we couldn’t overcome Houston at the end.”

(On Lowry’s play) “He’s playing well and is the heart of their team. He’s playing extremely well for Houston.”

NOTES

The Rockets racked up a 110-108 win over the Jazz tonight, giving Houston the season series (2-1). Houston upped its record to 4-1 on this season-long, six-game homestand and moved three games over .500 (37-34) for the first time since Apr. 12, 2010 (42-39).

Houston was 36-of-41 (.878) from the free throw line tonight. The Rockets made 39-of-51 (.765) from the stripe earlier this season vs. Golden State (11/24/10), which tied or set Toyota Center records for most free throws made (tied: 39 on 11/7/10 vs. Minnesota) and attempted (prev. high: 47 on 11/7/10 vs. Minnesota).

Utah set Houston’s opponent season high with 22 offensive rebounds en route to 52 total boards.

Kyle Lowry posted the first triple-double of his career with 28 points (9-14 FG, 3-4 3FG, 7-8 FT), a career-high 11 rebounds (prev. high: 10 on 11/1/06 vs. New York), 10 assists and three steals tonight. Lowry, who entered this season with just four career double-doubles, has already notched eight in 2010-11. Lowry becomes just the fourth Rockets player since 2002-03 to record a triple-double (Tracy McGrady-2, Steve Francis-1 and Trevor Ariza-1).

Kevin Martin topped the Rockets in scoring with 34 points (7-18 FG, 2-8 3FG) and added another steal tonight. He now has at least one steal in a season-high eight consecutive games (3/5/11-3/20/11). Martin was also 18-of-18 from the charity stripe to set Houston’s individual record for most free throws made in a game without a miss, breaking his own mark of 17-for-17 at Golden State (10/27/10).

Patrick Patterson notched his third consecutive double-double with 14 points (7-11 FG) and a career-high 13 rebounds off the bench tonight. Patterson also had 12 points (6-13 FG) and 10 boards vs. Charlotte (3/16/11), as well as 18 points (8-12 FG), 12 rebounds and a career-best four blocked shots vs. Boston (3/18/11). Patterson became the first Rockets rookie to record three or more consecutive double-doubles since Yao Ming in 2002-03 (five in a row: 12/3/02-12/13/02).

Luis Scola returned to the lineup tonight after missing the first five games (3/8/11-3/18/11) of his career with a sore left knee. Scola finished with eight rebounds and a career-high-tying three blocked shots (three on 1/5/11 vs. Portland).

Chase Budinger recorded seven points (2-4 FG) before leaving the game with a mild-to-moderate left ankle sprain. He did not return to tonight’s game.

Paul Millsap scored 17 of his 35 points (12-18 FG, 2-3 3FG, 9-12 FT) in the fourth quarter to keep the Jazz alive in this game. In addition to picking up his fifth 30-point performance on the season, Millsap had 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots.

Al Jefferson finished with 17 points (7-23 FG) and 19 rebounds (9 offensive) tonight. Jefferson now has 30 double-doubles on the season, which stands 12th in the NBA.

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