HOUSTON - The basketball acumen of Houston Rockets fans was cemented at the 3:09 mark of the fourth quarter Saturday night after Denver Nuggets forward Jordan Hamilton drilled an 11-foot jumper.
Having spent two-plus minutes of game time intentionally fouling Rockets center Dwight Howard, the Nuggets finally relented, a move symbolized by their allowing Houston to finally execute an offensive set. When Denver backed off Howard, the partisan crowd roared in approval.
"I thought they were going to keep fouling," Howard said. "I just took the ball out and stood there (poised for contact). I was waiting on it."
In part because Howard made Denver pay, and in part because forward Terrence Jones staved off a third-quarter Nuggets rally, the Rockets claimed a 122-111 win at Toyota Center.
Jones, the beneficiary of the midweek benching of Houston center Omer Asik, posted a double-double of 14 points and 12 rebounds while blocking three shots. After the Nuggets (4-5) closed to within seven points midway through the third quarter, Jones led an 18-4 spurt with a blocked shot, an outlet pass that resulted in a Chandler Parsons layup, two dunks and some nifty board work that reenergized Houston (7-4).
With 5:41 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets initiated the loathsome but effective Hack-a-Howard strategy, but Howard responded by making 13 of 19 free throws. Houston lead 98-86 when Denver forward Kenneth Faried first fouled Howard; the lead ballooned to 115-99 when Howard sank two free throws with 3:22 left to play.
"That goes against everything I'm about," Nuggets coach Brian Shaw said of the Hack-a-Howard gambit. "I don't believe in that and I don't think it's in the spirit of the game. So, that is exactly what I get for doing that. I'm glad he made his free throws and it shows me to just be true to who you are. It backfired."
Howard finished 17 of 24 from the line and posted a team-high 25 points while Parsons added 20. Denver point guard Ty Lawson scored 17 of his game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter while adding a career-high 17 assists. Forwards Wilson Chandler and JJ Hickson had 14 points apiece as Denver had its seven-game series win streak snapped.
With 12 points on 4-for-4 shooting, Parsons provided the Rockets early momentum that their reserves carried deep into the second quarter. Parsons converted a pair of three-point plays in the first quarter before adding a four-point play for a 28-12 lead with 4:34 left in the period.
The Nuggets sliced that deficit to 10 points by the close of the first, but Rockets second-year forward Donatas Motiejunas shook off the cobwebs and supplied 11 of his 12 points prior to the intermission. Motiejunas logged only nine minutes all season, but with Houston short two rotation bigs, he took full advantage of the available playing time.
"It's tough when you don't play, and when you get a chance just try to use it," Motiejunas said. "I think I did the most of it. I was trying to do the most with it."
But just when Houston appeared on the verge of running away, the Nuggets rallied by attacking the rim once Howard sat with his third foul at the 2:57 mark of the second quarter. The Nuggets converted layups from Chandler and Lawson and two Hickson dunks to cut the deficit to 63-46 at the half.
Denver would make subsequent pushes, but the deficit proved too great.
"We started slow and we didn't do any of the concepts and Houston came out hot," Lawson said. "Actually they didn't come out hot, they just made a lot of layups. We just didn't come out ready to play."
NOTES: There has been some debate over the value of the Nuggets' depth, but in its 117-113 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, Denver had seven players score in double figures. Currently, 13 Nuggets average at least 15 minutes per game. "Right now it's been a luxury for us to have that (depth)," coach Brian Shaw said. "But I would like to settle into a rotation of maybe nine or 10 guys." ... Nuggets G Ty Lawson started against the Rockets despite suffering an abrasion to his right cornea against the Timberwolves. ... Rockets coach Kevin McHale announced pregame that disgruntled C Omer Asik was unavailable due to illness. According to reports, Asik requested a trade after he was removed from the starting lineup earlier this week. He had his streak of 239 consecutive games snapped in New York against the Knicks on Thursday night.