GAME 56: Rockets 104, Kings 87


A trimmer Kyle Lowry made his return to the court Sunday after a month-long absence.

WHO: Rockets 104, Kings 87

WHAT: If it wasn’t for the return of Kyle Lowry from a month-long absence due to a bacterial infection, Sunday’s tilt in Sacramento would have been an absolute snoozer. Either way, the Rockets got what they came for and left California with their seventh win in their last 10 games, improving to 31-25 overall and now sitting in 6th in the West. They are a game out of 8th, and a game and a half behind Memphis for 5th. If the playoffs started today, Houston would be facing the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. If they get 5th, they’ll likely see the Clippers. It seems homecourt advantage, however, through the first round of the playoffs is nothing more than a wish right now. With 10 games left in the regular season, the Clippers hold a three-game lead on 4th.

WHAT HAPPENED?: What is there really to say? The Rockets led this one 32-21 after the first quarter, and 58-43 at halftime. They got an early jump and never looked back on the Kings, who cut the deficit to eight early in the fourth quarter before Houston got it back up to 15 in no time. Courtney Lee (25 points, 11-18 shooting, 4 steals) was the star of this one, scoring 17 of Houston’s first 27 points on 7-of-8 shooting, completely torturing Kings rookie Jimmer Fredette. And though he sat out the second half due to nausea, Marcus Camby kept the Rockets’ momentum alive defensively, sacrificing his body for loose balls, challenging shots and keeping DeMarcus Cousins (who lit up Houston for 38 points and 14 rebounds in their last meeting) quiet. Cousins, undoubtedly the key to the Kings’ attack, only had 9 points (on 4-of-8 shooting) and 8 rebounds in 25 minutes, and sat the last quarter-plus of the game after failing to hustle back on defense on one play. Either way, Sacramento was just no match for a Rockets team booming with energy aside from a seven-minute period of the third quarter. The Rockets hit on 9 of 22 3s and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, holding Sacramento to 43 percent shooting and 11 points fewer than its regular-season average. Six Rockets scored in double figures. Only three Kings managed to score 10 or more.

THE RETURN OF LOWRY: In a much-welcomed sight for the Rockets, Kyle Lowry made his return in the red and silver. He had last played on March 7 in Toronto, and he made his way back to the court with 2:13 left in the first quarter. He looked rusty and played extremely conservative, which is to be expected, and was perfectly content to sit back, run the offense and get the ball where it needed to be. However, he played all of the fourth quarter – when the Kings had rallied and cut their deficit to single digits – and it was there that you could see his effect. Lowry’s a veteran leader whose stability and know-how at the spot calmed the team. He ran clock, he threw a couple of lobs for easy transition hoops that killed Sacto’s momentum, and simply managed the game. As great as Dragic has played of late, he’s not the veteran leader Lowry is, nor is he a sure hand. There is a more secure presence when Lowry is on the court, and that’s not a knock on Dragic as it is a compliment of Lowry, who finished with one point, seven assists and no turnovers in 17 minutes, 45 seconds. He missed all three shots he took, but that’s fine. His offense will come, and there’s no doubt his conditioning was far from stellar. Right now, his return allows more rest for Dragic, who has played incredibly heavy minutes as a starter, and it also allows a different dynamic for Houston, which can now employ Dragic more off the ball with Lowry back to run the point.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?: I apologize for the lack of notes from this one, but there’s really not much to say. The Rockets just took care of business, plain and simple. In the words of Sean Carter: “On to the next one.” That one happens to be Monday against a Portland Trail Blazers team that is 19-10 at home. It will undoubtedly be a tougher test for the Rockets, who have greatly overachieved on this brutal road trip that has seen inspired, eye-opening wins over Chicago and the Lakers. Ten games remain in the season, and barring some epic collapse, the Rockets are all but headed to the playoffs. What remains is working Lowry back into the rotation and finding a rhythm there. Already this team has seen great growth. Once 6-12 on the road, the Rockets have gone 5-5 since then. They’ve also improved dramatically on defense. Before the All-Star break, they ranked 17th in defensive efficiency. Now they sit at 14th, and Lowry’s return will only help in that regard since he is an able defender against the league’s tougher perimeter threats. Houston has to love the position it’s in. Being in control of its own destiny, it has not taken that for granted.