postgame: Rockets 111, Pelicans 104 (4/12/14)

by Jim Eichenhofer


HOUSTON – En route to the best game of his NBA career Saturday, New Orleans forward Luke Babbitt dropped in a mid-range jumper over Houston’s defense, giving the Pelicans a seemingly comfortable 104-96 lead with just 2:48 remaining. With only eight fully-healthy players available, New Orleans appeared poised to register one of the most unlikely wins by any NBA team during the 2013-14 regular season. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, Babbitt’s shot represented their last points of the night.

Houston (53-27) thwarted the upset bid by New Orleans (32-48) by going on a 15-0 run to close the game, overcoming what was once a 15-point second-half deficit against the pesky Pelicans. The Rockets finally took the lead on a James Harden layup with 1:04 to go, then benefited from a pair of favorable replay reviews that earned them possession of the ball. Jeremy Lin and Harden combined to score the final six points, over the last 33 seconds.

After repeatedly coming up with offensive answers whenever Houston made a push, New Orleans’ attack sputtered down the stretch. The Pelicans went 0-for-6 and committed two turnovers in the final 2:48.

The frustrating finish soured a Saturday night in which a hustling New Orleans squad gamely outworked the Western Conference’s fourth-best team record-wise, despite being without each of its top seven leading scorers in 2013-14. With Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans and company sidelined, Babbitt racked up a career-best 24 points, including 4-for-8 three-point shooting. Alexis Ajinca, who started at center in place of the recently-injured Greg Stiemsma, also had an outstanding game, posting 17 points (his career high is 19) and seven boards. While playing 40-plus minutes apiece, the team’s fill-in starting backcourt of Austin Rivers and Anthony Morrow gave Houston fits. Rivers nearly notched his first career triple-double, with 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Morrow continued his productive offensive stretch by adding 20 points (on 9-for-14 shooting), along with six rebounds and five assists.

“We had eight guys available tonight, and everybody just scrapped,” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said. “I thought some of our guys got a bit tired, that last (few minutes). … We got a lot of production from a number of our guys. Our guys aren’t used to playing that many minutes.”

Williams also pointed to Houston attempting 39 free throws, which allowed the Rockets to set their defense, particularly in the second half. The Pelicans played one of the best halves of the season en route to a 59-46 intermission edge, but were outscored 65-45 after the break.

“We had (eight) guys and we’re playing against one of the better teams in the league, and we could’ve won, should’ve won,” Rivers said. “But excuses don’t really matter. We played well. We just made a few mistakes. Learn from it.”

“I thought we battled the whole game, really,” Babbitt said. “For 47 minutes, I thought we played really well. It was that last minute that hurt us. ( Houston) played well down the stretch, spread us out and made shots. We’re out there playing hard, playing unselfishly. That’s what Coach is preaching. We’re buying into that. It doesn’t matter who’s out there – guys have to step up. That’s just kind of the way it is right now.”