Houston (CBS HOUSTON) – It was all about ‘J-Smoove’s’ return on Friday night in the Toyota Center, and the Rockets looked plenty smooth.
The team traded for Josh Smith Friday morning, and the forward who helped propel the Rockets into the Western Conference Finals last season was an immediate infusion of life as Houston rolled to a 102-98 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
The victory snapped a two-game losing skid and pushed Houston back above the .500 plateau at 23-22 on the season. It’s a far cry from the season everyone envisioned after last spring’s playoff push. The fans welcomed him back in kind, roaring along with a “Welcome Back” video montage during the first quarter.
Smith was often relegated to the bench in Los Angeles after signing with the Western Conference rival in the offseason. The 30-year-old had played only 51 minutes in 13 games since Christmas, sitting in favor of Cole Aldrich as the Clippers mounted a 10-game winning streak.
“Definitely a little rusty,” Smith said. “It felt natural out there, being around my teammates out there, being able to play in the same system.”
The familiarity shined more than the rust. Smith didn’t fill up the scoreboard but he was everywhere, snatching rebounds, directing traffic down low and blocking three shots, including a thunderous stuff that capped a 14-2 run to end the third quarter.
He was essentially the command center of Houston’s offense, which looked totally revamped featuring a big man with such passing acumen.
“You put him at the elbow, now you’ve got the floor spread with four guys around him,” said head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “The paint’s open. Now it gives you more opportunities for cuts to the basket, which we’ve been preaching over and over again.”
Added Smith: “When you’re able to play unselfishly, it becomes contagious. So being able to pass the ball and move the basketball tonight was a great example of that.”
The passing was indeed contagious. Fourteen of Houston’s 20 first-half field goals came courtesy of an assist.
Smith was just 1-for-10 from the field for two points, yet still finished with six assists, five rebounds and two steals. It was part of a renewed defensive effort for Houston. The Rockets blocked a season-high 10 shots and have now recorded at least five swats in four of their last five games.
“The more involved everyone is offensively, the more energy we have on the defensive end of the floor,” Bickerstaff said.
With Smith playing significant minutes and not scoring, the Rockets needed someone to drain shots off his smooth passes. Enter Trevor Ariza. The small forward drained five three-pointers, highlighted by consecutive long balls that spurred the 14-2 run once Milwaukee had trimmed a 12-point halftime lead to a single point.
“Josh is smart enough to know, when he gets hit in the post, the corner threes are open,” James Harden said.”He found Trevor several times, set us up well.”
Ariza finished with 19 points, complementing Harden’s prolific night. The All-Star guard poured in 30 points while also draining a handful of treys. Overall, five Rockets scored in double figures, led by Terrence Jones and Marcus Thornton off the bench.
The Rockets practically led wire-to-wire, trailing for a mere eight seconds and pouring in 31 first-quarter points. It was the second consecutive game in which Houston topped the 30-point mark in the opening period.
The bench accounted for much of a second-quarter separation, with Ty Lawson scoring eight of his 11 points as the Rockets rolled into halftime with a 57-45 advantage. The team and the Toyota Center was feeding off Smith’s return and the Rockets long-range game.
Behind a strong interior game, Milwaukee briefly quashed the good vibes. The Bucks put together a 15-4 push thanks to Greg Monroe and John Henson’s efforts inside. Milwaukee out-rebounded the Rockets by a 47-42 margin on the night.
The Rockets kept Milwaukee at bay, mostly by defending the three-pointing and draining their own shots behind the arc. Houston went 15-for-44 on three balls, while the Bucks shot just 3-for-12 from deep.
They needed the cushion, because a cold stretch in the game’s final minutes allowed the Bucks to turn a comfortable win into a few nervous moments during the waning seconds. Khris Middleton’s 3-pointer with 6.8 seconds left got the Bucks within a bucket before Ariza drained two free throws.
“We should have finished the game off better, but a win is a win,” Lawson said. “We wanted to get back in the win column.”
The late rally ultimately couldn’t ruin Smith’s return. With the key reserve back, it’s a bit like getting the band back together, and the Rockets hope their next opponent will be another good omen. Houston takes on Dallas in a rematch of last year’s first-round playoff matchup this Sunday in the Toyota Center.
“This,” Harden said of Smith’s return. “It changes everything for us.”