The Rockets have had their share late-game meltdowns this season where nothing seems to go right.
But as of late, they have displayed an ability to find a way to stay on track in the face of adversity. That was certainly the case Monday night after they appeared on the brink of falling apart against Memphis only to rebound and hold on for a 97-93 win at Toyota Center.
After the Grizzlies cut a one-time 10 point deficit to two points in the final minute, the Rockets converted six straight free throws in the final :22.2 with Courtney Lee knocking down four and Kyle Lowry sinking the last two to preserve the win.
It was a tougher than it should have been ending, but it was a also a good test as the Rockets move one game away from the All-Star break looking like one of the better teams in the Western Conference. This collection of Rockets players are looking more and more like team because of their ability to come together in tight situations down the stretch.
“It’s very important that we start building that trust and that chemistry within ourselves to go in and compete and make the right plays not only for ourselves but one of another, especially at All-Star break,” Lee said. “We need to get as many wins on our home court as possible.”
The win Monday night was critical because of the grit and physically challenging nature of the game (the two teams combined to shoot 43 free throws). With his two best post defenders (Luis Scola and Sam Dalembert) on the bench in foul trouble in the fourth quarter, first-year Rockets coach Kevin McHale turned to a smaller lineup to contend with the penetrating Grizzlies.
While the move and the willingness to stick with it defied logic, it worked well with Patrick Patterson defending the post and Chandler Parson sliding over from this small forward spot to take on Dante Cunningham and Marreese Speights at the power forward spot.
The decision proved genius because Patterson limited Marc Gasol’s effectiveness in the paint while the Grizzlies got nothing offensive out of their power forwards down the stretch.
“At that point we didn’t have a whole bunch of options,” said McHale, whose team heads into Wednesday home game against Philadelphia just before the break in third place in the Southwest Division. “I think if you go small and you can move the ball and get some stuff moving (that can work). I knew Chandler could handle and do a decent job on Cunningham.
“It was a heck of a win for us.”
Indeed it was because the Rockets recovered from a shaky start and then held on to a win a back-and-forth battle where the biggest lead was 10 points and that didn’t come until early in the fourth quarter.
With Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Gasol and Speights all taking turns penetrating the lane, the Grizzlies shot nearly 57 percent from the field in the first half. But the Rockets went smaller for much of the second half and used their quickness to take away the drives to the basket and hold them to 37 percent from the field and just 28 points in the paint.
“They hit some shots in the first half in the paint,” McHale said. “They had 38 points in the paint in the first half but that’s kind of how they live. They drive and they get in there. We started shutting that down. I thought Patrick did a really in the pick and roll coverage of Gasol.”
Then offensively, the Rockets got back into a grove with Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry both hitting big shots. Lowry turned in his second consecutive scoring night with a game-high 24 points to go with nine assists, seven rebounds and four steals in nearly 47 minutes on the floor. Martin finished with 22 points with Allen glued to him much of the night.
Lowry’s play was probably most impressive because he seemed to receive the brunt of the physical play being matched up most of the night on Conley. Conley got the best of him in the third quarter, but Lowry made the difficult shots and knocked down all three free throw opportunities in the defining fourth quarter.
“We had to go out there and play a little bit tougher than they did,” Lowry said. “I think in the game we played at their place that they definitely out-toughed us and tonight we made a point to out-tough them.
“That was a good win for our team.”