CLEVELAND -- The former coach of the Houston Rockets used to call it juice. When you find a rhythm, you just keep shooting and defending and moving your body and rebounding and doing all the little things.
One of the problems with finding the juice is that you want it at the start of the game, and it’s something the Rockets don’t have on most nights.
It wasn’t the Rockets' concern that LeBron James had the night off to rest, or that the Cavs didn’t make adjustments when coach J.B. Bickerstaff kept defenders on Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova on pick-and-roll plays.
Houston is desperate. It has no choice but to feel this way in its mystifying season of underachievement.
The victory gave Houston a half-game lead over Dallas for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs with seven games remaining in the regular season.
“Desperation, that’s got to be the feeling,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s not panic but it’s desperate. I don’t know how many times that we’ve been down double figures and got down to come back in games. That’s who we’ve been; again, the desperation needs to start at the tip.”
Houston has compiled 12 victories this season when it trailed by double digits. Some of those wins are against playoff-bound squads such as Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland (twice), Indiana and Toronto.
The Rockets believe they’re too good to find themselves in such holes. When they get down, everybody seems to wake up. Guys start hitting shots and making plays on the defensive end.
“It’s not a perfect game, not to compare us to other teams, but no one plays perfect for 48 minutes,” Patrick Beverley said. “I guess it’s the will in this team to do something special no matter what place you’re in. Of course, when you get to the playoffs anything can happen, and we just want to get there and see where our cards are when we get there.”
For whatever reason, the Rockets felt being down 20 wasn’t the end for them Tuesday.
It just wasn’t.
Cleveland was having its own issues, converting 36 percent from the floor, getting outrebounded 55-38 and allowing 66 second-half points.
Houston trailed by 13 to start the fourth quarter and kept within scratching distance before going on an 11-0 run that ended with Beverley making a 25-foot 3-pointer with 3 minutes, 42 seconds left to give the visitors a 94-91 edge.
Cleveland tried the Hack-A-Dwight strategy on Rockets center Dwight Howard and even that backfired. Then the final dagger came from Trevor Ariza, a man who had made just 32.1 percent of his shots over the previous five games.
Ariza found his stroke on Tuesday night, making half of his 10 shots, including a 3-pointer in front of the Cavs' bench with 17.3 seconds to play. The basket pushed the lead to 101-97 and the crowd began to seep out of Quicken Loans Arena and into the cold Midwest air.
Ariza felt his 3 was “100 percent” on time.
James Harden, who finished with a team-high 27 points to go with eight assists and six rebounds, knew the shot was on the money, much like Beverley’s 3 earlier in the fourth quarter.
“They were ready for those shots,” Harden said of Beverley and Ariza. “They prepare themselves and they work extremely hard every single day. When opportunity came, it was just another time for them to knock it down.”
The reasons for why the Rockets continue to struggle early in games would take a five-day conference at a downtown convention center to explain.
Houston believes problems solve themselves, especially on defense. Bickerstaff isn’t afraid to challenge his team to make adjustments on the fly or to stick with things for an entire game until the plan eventually works.
“With this team, man, the way this year has been going, down 15 in New York with three minutes to go and come back and win, we’ve been in so many situations,” Beverley said. “The thing about us is not to get in our own way. To stay positive and if we play hard and we lose, then we’re fine with that. If we don’t, something is wrong and we came out and we just played hard."