PHOENIX -- From the opening moments of the game, you saw it. The Houston Rockets were slapping fives, giving dap, yelling encouragement, listening and, yes, playing for one another.
“It’s like being in a relationship: If you’re around your wife every day, [then] you get away from her, you miss her a little bit,” said guard Patrick Beverley, who scored a season-high 18 points in 28 minutes. “That’s what it was with this team. The break was great for us, and fortunately, we were able to heal up a little bit, energize our batteries and be with our families, [and] we came back and were excited to see each other, and we played for each other today.”
In the locker room after the game, with Future playing from Dwight Howard’s locker, there was James Harden doing a little dance, Ty Lawson joking with Montrezl Harrell and the GM, Daryl Morey, smiling.
“I think that’s the luxury of the break: getting away from basketball,” said Trevor Ariza, who was a whopping plus-40 in the boxscore and contributed 25 points, six rebounds and five steals. “When you come back to do the things you love to do and the things that you’ve been doing your whole life, you start to appreciate it more, and I think that’s what we displayed tonight.”
The Rockets fooled around in the first half of the season and put themselves in a fight for the last playoff spot in the West. There’s a general feeling that the Rockets can move up to as high as the No. 6 seed, but to achieve that, the defense must improve.
Houston forced 21 turnovers on Friday and forced its opponent to shoot just 36.6 percent from the floor. The Rockets also picked up 37 fast-break points.
In the first half, the Rockets missed open shots as if the rim weren't even in the arena. But defensively, the Rockets stayed strong against the younger Suns, who lost Tyson Chandler to a strained right shoulder in the second quarter.
Howard had only six rebounds, but Ariza crashed the boards, and Harden, despite struggling with his shot at the start, did the little things. He had 10 rebounds and seven assists. He also had a nifty, between-the-legs pass to Clint Capela for a two-handed dunk that got the Rockets' bench yelling and screaming as Houston took a 77-54 lead with 5:16 to play in the third quarter.
There was also a defense-helps-offense sequence in the first half, when Harden, on a switch, was guarding Mirza Teletovic and Howard snuck in for a steal. The ball was pushed Harden who sent a pass to Beverley, who found Ariza in the corner for a jumper. Howard was smiling as he ran back down the court.
“I thought our defense was great, despite us missing shots early in the game,” said Howard, who scored 15 points on eight shots. “We still played defense. Our communication was key throughout the game, and that’s something we need to continue.”
Prior to the All-Star break, Houston had lost three consecutive games, including one in Portland, which knocked the team from the playoff standings. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff said the team was broken, and Jason Terry noted that the chemistry was bad.
Late-night meetings took place before the players left for the break. When this group returned, it gathered at Arizona State for two days of practices and a chance to rekindle old friendships.
Harden was battling a cold after spending time in chilly Toronto, and Howard was grumpy because his name had been mentioned in trade talks, but Bickerstaff said he liked the demeanor of his group in the gym. Josh Smith and Beverley were feeling better, physically. Smith put together two solid days of practices and was moved into the starting lineup against the Suns.
Beverley said the two days in Tempe were among the best, most intense days of practices in a while. It was needed because this Rockets team withstood the trade deadline; they lost talented power forward Donatas Motiejunas and veteran shooter Marcus Thornton so a first-round draft pick could be obtained.
In the process of healing, the Rockets regained their playoff position as the No. 8 seed. However, it's a very tight race among Portland (28-27), Houston (28-28) and Utah (27-27) for the final two playoff spots. If you include Dallas (29-27) as the No. 6 seed, Houston is just one game back.
Next week, the Rockets visit Utah and Portland.
“That’s been the message: We came out of the break and hit the reset button,” Bickerstaff said. “Everything that happened in the past is in the past. We had 27 games coming out of the break -- it’s now a 26-game season for us. [The] only thing that matters is getting this team to its potential.”