HOUSTON -- For the first time during their crucial seven-game homestand, the Houston Rockets opened a contest with energy, and they rode an early burst to a 100-93 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.
After sluggish starts necessitated sustained runs of quality play against the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves, and also undermined a stalled comeback in a 30-point loss to the Warriors, the Rockets rode their interior defense to an early lead against Utah they did not relinquish.
The victory enabled the Rockets (37-31) to extend their lead over the Jazz (34-34) to three games in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Utah mustered only eight field goals in the first quarter, then shot just 6-for-16 in the second as the Rockets extended their eight-point lead at the close of the opening period to 52-33 by the intermission.
Rockets guard James Harden finished with 29 points, 20 coming in the first half on just eight shot attempts. His backcourt mate, Jeremy Lin, added 24 points, including 10 in the third quarter on 3-for-3 shooting.
The Jazz trailed by as many as 22 before cutting the deficit to five points late in the fourth quarter. Harden knocked down two free throws with 1:15 remaining to rebuild the lead to 95-88, and then he stripped Al Jefferson on the defensive end to negate a critical Utah possession.
Gordon Hayward paced the Jazz with 27 points and had eight rebounds. Jefferson posted 18 points and 11 boards, and Paul Millsap added 16 points.
Excluding Millsap, the Jazz struggled on the interior before the break. Jefferson missed five of his seven shots in the first half as Utah produced just 16 points in the paint despite its decided size advantage up front.
The Jazz did better on the interior in the second half, as the Rockets ended up with just a 46-44 edge on points in the paint.
NOTES: With the core of last season's playoff participants serving as the foundation for his current roster, Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin remains confident that Utah can right its ship for the stretch run: a 14-game sprint that will feature a dogfight with the Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers for the last two Western Conference playoff spots. "As much experience as you get in those situations it makes you a little more comfortable in them," said Corbin, whose team is 3-10 since the trade deadline. "This group of guys has been resilient all year. We have not played our best basketball of late, but we're looking forward to a big finish." ... For a team that has struggled of late with slow starts, the Rockets need only to recall their previous meeting with the Jazz to grasp the benefits of early energy. Houston outscored Utah 57-39 in the first half of their 125-80 road win on Jan. 28, a victory that included Houston posting a 141.5 offensive rating and 61.8 effective field-goal percentage. "We talked about what we need to do: push the ball and attack, don't wait, don't play slow and don't let their defense get set," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "Hopefully we can replicate some of that."