WHO: Rockets 113, Kings 106 (OT)
WHAT: Houston dodged a bullet Monday, escaping with a win in which it was outplayed and outhustled most of the night, and on a night when Utah, New York and Denver all posted wins as well. Fortunately, the Kings are absolutely pathetic on defense, so an early 16-point Sacramento lead was quickly erased thanks to its apathy on that end of the floor. At 27-23, the Rockets are still 8th in the West, tied with Denver, and face a monster of a game Tuesday when they visit Dallas. The Rockets are just a game behind the Mavericks for 5th in the West, and tied with Denver for 8th and just 1 1/2 games ahead of Phoenix for 8th. All of this with just 16 games remaining.
WHAT HAPPENED?: The Kings are brimming with talent, oozing with potential. But they’re sloppy with the ball and refuse to acknowledge that defense is a part of the game, and that’s what cost them. The Kings led by 16 in the first half and as many as 8 late in the fourth quarter, but did a poor job of closing out Houston. Sacramento lived off points off turnovers and fast-break buckets early when it built its early lead and sustained it through most of the first half, but the Rockets did a good job adjusting, limiting transition opportunities and forcing Sacramento into more of a halfcourt game in the second half. That was enough, as the Kings’ “defense” allowed Houston to shoot 48.3 percent from the field (including 57 percent inside the 3-point arc) and assist on 27 of its 43 buckets (a healthy 63 percent). Even 18 offensive rebounds and 19 Rockets turnovers weren’t enough to salvage Sacramento, which arguably lost the game more than the Rockets won it. The Kings were particularly dreadful defensively down the stretch in overtime. In a tied game, they switched on a pick-and-roll, allowing power forward Chuck Hayes to defend point guard Goran Dragic, who broke down the defense easily and found Luis Scola for an easy lay-in. Then, after Marcus Thornton tied it with a scoop shot in the lane, the Kings switched AGAIN on the same exact play, and this time Dragic again got by Hayes, who forced DeMarcus Cousins to help, leaving Patrick Patterson wide open for a 20-footer for a lead the Rockets would never relinquish the rest of the way. Had Sacramento just played competent defense Monday, it would have walked away with an easy win, and a win it admittedly did deserve for most of the night. The Kings blew magnificent games from DeMarcus Cousins (career-high 38 points, 14 rebounds) and Thornton (27 points).
THE BOYKINS EFFECT: The Rockets signed 5-foot-5, 35-year-old point guard Earl Boykins on Monday and he arrived to Toyota Center 45 minutes before the starting tip. He still made quite an impact on the game. I am not a fan of the pick-up (not so much the signing itself as much as the organizational philosophy it implies), but he did impress and play admirably. I was quite pleased. Not known for his passing, I thought Boykins did a fine job setting up teammates and actually directing the offense. Known as a score-first shooting point guard, he moved the ball, made the extra pass and allowed the offense to sustain a rhythm, something desperately lacking of late whenever Goran Dragic left the game. Boykins played 21 minutes and had 10 points (2-of-6 shooting) and 5 assists. He made four crucial free throws in the closing seconds of OT to keep the Kings at bay. He was also nifty in getting into the lane and utilizing a beautiful teardrop runner. I have my doubts that he can keep up that type of effectiveness, but for one night at least, I’m glad I was wrong in thinking his acquisition was a mistake.
PATTERSON RULES: It was a heck of a night for Rockets second-year forward Patrick Patterson, going up against former Kentucky teammate DeMarcus Coustins. Patterson was absolutely brilliant for Houston, particularly down the stretch in fourth quarter and overtime, and on both ends of the floor. In 30 minutes, he picked up a career-high 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting and four rebounds off the bench. This was two nights after going 0-for-7 in 14 minutes against the Mavs (think the Rockets could have used him in that game?). Lately, I like how he’s more assertive on offense and taking initiative, especially in scoring buckets in the paint near the rim, and not so much outside 16-18 feet (the Rockets already have Luis Scola in the abhorred outside-shooting power forward role.) In his last 11 games, he’s scored 10 or more points six times, and has scored 12 or more five times. With Dragic and Courtney Lee (normally the Rockets’ offensive firepower off the bench) now members of the starting lineup for the foreseeable future, Patterson will be looked upon to be more of a threat offensively, and he’s delivered more often than not recently.
INJURED ROCKETS: With 1:18 left in OT, Goran Dragic appeared to have twisted his ankle, and he left the game in obvious pain. It was reported that X-rays were negative and he told reporters that he still expects to play Tuesday in Dallas, 22 hours after the injury happened. He called it a “minor sprain.” Not only that, but Marcus Camby left the game late in the second half to have his wrist examined after a fall after a blocked shot. He told reporters after the game that he has torn ligaments in his left wrist, but that he would play Tuesday as well. Either way, as commendable as their toughness is, that’s two incredibly important Rockets who won’t be at full health against the Mavs.
T-WILL RETURNS: Arguably the biggest mistake of the Daryl Morey era, Terrence Williams, returned to Houston on Monday, but as a Sacramento King. Williams, the former New Jersey Nets lottery pick who played sporadic minutes in 23 games for the Rockets the last two seasons, wasn’t all that bad, with 10 points (on 4-of-7 shooting), 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 16 minutes. You could tell he was amped by this one, not only by his long stares toward Houston’s bench after each of his two 3s, but also because he did not commit a single turnover. Apparently his focus level was at an all-time high.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?: It was one of those games that the Rockets would be talking about more if they had lost. They were expected to win this game, and they almost didn’t. A poor effort and attitude early did not ultimately prove costly, and they managed to get their act together (as well as exploit Sacramento’s horrendous defense early and often) before the Kings could put it away. They’ve got to get rid of the bitter taste from this one and now focus on Dallas. The odds are stacked against the Rockets. Not only did the Mavericks outlast the Rockets in OT on Saturday in Houston, but now they’ll be in Dallas, where the Mavs are 18-8. The Rockets, on the other hand, are only 8-16 on the road, and will have a hampered Dragic and Camby in tow as well. Houston is a meek 5-13 against Western Conference teams on the road. Ouch. Not the most ideal scenario for such a pivotal contest.