HOUSTON — The Rockets’ young and energetic team had every right to be excited about playing another game in front of their home crowd, coming off two big season wins against the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. They were also elated to have an opportunity to win three games in a row for the first time this season.
Yet, when they took the court Friday, it looked as if they were still stuck in the past two games. New Orleans raced out to a 26-12 lead midway through the first quarter, seemingly before the Rockets realized they were playing a game. They looked sluggish on defense, allowing the Pelicans to go 6-for-6 from 3-point range.
It seemed like one of those nights where Houston’s youth and inexperience would kick in, and New Orleans would run their rebuilding opponents off the court. By the third quarter, the Rockets were falling consistently victim to open jump shots by Brandon Ingram and physical post play by Jonas Valanciunas.
“For a while, JV (Jonas Valanciunas) was just going at us and posting us up,” said Rockets head coach Stephen Silas. “We tried to do different things, as far as Alpi (Alperen Sengun) and having Uz (Usman Garuba) guard him. In the second quarter, we put Bobi (Boban Marjanovic) on him for a little while. We double teamed him. We did a little bit of everything.”
Adding to the problem, Houston’s young players seemingly allowed the officials to get inside their heads in the second and third quarters. It started to look like the rebuilding Rockets of old, who would often mentally check out of games when they faced adversity.
But this differs from the adolescent team the Pelicans defeated twice earlier this season. This team of young players has grown over the last eight games, in which they’ve posted a 5-3 record.
Over that time, the Rockets have built chemistry and morale, which are traits they can take with them into next season. On Friday, they never gave up hope. Even by 14 points with under 10 minutes left, Houston knew it had to get back to playing its brand of basketball.
For the Rockets, that brand is playing with hustle, grit, and determination. It’s something Pelicans head coach Willie Green said he expected Houston to do coming into Friday’s game.
“They are a young team, and they are talented,” Green said in his pregame press conference. “If you don’t take them seriously to start the game and have a level of discipline of how you approach the game, you can run into trouble real quick,”
Trouble is what New Orleans had over the game’s final nine minutes, as the Rockets went on a 23-13 run to cut the lead from 14 to just a point. After Ingram missed a shot, Kevin Porter Jr. was able to secure the rebound, leading to Houston’s timeout with 4.0 seconds left.
To inbound the ball, Silas elected to go with one of his better passers in forward Jae’Sean Tate. He looked things over and waited, hoping to find Porter or Jalen Green heading toward the basket.
But both options were closed off to Tate. Instead, he went with his final option of throwing the ball to Jabari Smith Jr. in the backcourt, who methodically advanced his way past midcourt.
Smith clapped his hands at a rapid pace, signaling Tate to pass him the ball. When he received it, he took two dribbles to his right and rose above 6-foot-7 forward Naji Marshall and buried a 3-pointer, giving the Rockets by 114-112 leads with 0.4 seconds remaining. That shot provided Houston with the winning margin after the Pelicans failed to inbound the ball over Marjanovic’s outstretched arms.
“I wasn’t the first option. But as the first few options were n’t open, I just flashed to the ball and just trusted myself, ”said Smith, whose game-winning basket was his only shot attempt by him in the fourth quarter.
“I felt like I was in a video game. It was crazy. It was like I didn’t see anybody else. The gymnasium went blank; it was just me and him. It was a special moment, for sure.”
Houston (18-52), which is now on its first three-game winning streak of the season, will look to extend its winning streak to four games when they face the Pelicans again on Sunday at Toyota Center. New Orleans (33-37) remains in the Western Conference playoff race.