HOUSTON - The combination of a healthy Carlos Delfino plus superior ball-handling provided the Rockets the foundation necessary to build a 123-104 victory over the Atlanta Hawks Monday night at Toyota Center.
Delfino missed losses to the Spurs and Thunder with an illness. He returned with verve on New Year's Eve, producing 22 points and seven assists off the bench to help the Rockets (17-14) close 2012 with a bang.
After the Hawks (19-10) sliced what was once a 21-point deficit to five points on John Jenkins' layup midway through the fourth quarter, Delfino hit a 3-pointer and added a transition layup to help reestablish control. James Harden led six Rockets in double figures with 28 points.
The Hawks lost for the first time with Lou Williams, who paced Atlanta with 21 points, in the starting lineup. Al Horford added 18 points and 13 rebounds for the Hawks, while Josh Smith returned from a one-game injury hiatus with 17 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots. Jenkins scored 15 points in just 24 minutes off the Atlanta bench.
Following back-to-back games with 24 turnovers, the Rockets committed only 11 against the Hawks, one of the league's top defensive teams.
The Rockets' 16-0, second-quarter run was emblematic of their offensive approach. After Hawks forward Ivan Johnson buried an 18-foot jumper to push Atlanta in from 31-30 with 10:06 remaining in the half, the Rockets responded with four 3-pointers, a Jeremy Lin pull-up jumper, and Toney Douglas' transition layup to build a 15-point advantage.
That mix of perimeter shooting and breakneck pace nearly floored the Hawks. The Rockets expanded their lead to 21 points after Patrick Patterson drilled a corner 3-pointer, Lin added a three-point play and Marcus Morris dunked. Atlanta responded with some sharpshooting of its own, hitting five 3-pointers over a five-minute stretch bridging the middle periods. The Rockets led 64-46 at the intermission, but never quite shook the Hawks.
NOTES: On the heels of consecutive losses in which they committed 24 turnovers in both, the Rockets didn't receive a reprieve against the Hawks, who rank fourth in the NBA in defensive turnover rate (15.2 percent). "We talk about it every day, every practice, every time that they jump in there and throw it to the other team," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "So, I don't know. I guess we'll keep on talking about that." ... The Hawks' four-game winning streak just happens to coincide with Williams joining the starting lineup. Williams started only 38 of 455 career games over seven seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, and he finished second to Harden in 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year voting. "He's been good in our starting lineup and we're going to leave him there," coach Larry Drew said. "If it's not broken, we're not going to fix it."