HOUSTON -- Detroit coach Lawrence Frank contemplated the possibility of the Pistons surrendering in the finale of their six-game road trip even before they stepped on the court on Saturday night in the Toyota Center.
Season-opening six-game skids can shake the nerves of the most resilient individuals, so as the Rockets created a comfortable margin en route to their 96-82 victory, what unfolded seemed almost inevitable.
The Pistons will win eventually, but the circumstances of an extended roadie in early November greased the skids for a team already expected to scuffle. The Rockets, mired in a three-game slide of their own, were both willing and able to send the Pistons (0-7) home with another loss.
The Rockets (3-3) took the lead for good at 16-15 on a driving layup by James Harden with 2:24 remaining in the first quarter. From that point, their primary objective was correcting the miscues at the root of their losing streak, namely stagnant offense and careless ball-handling.
They did so without coach Kevin McHale, who returned home to Minnesota to handle a family matter. In his absence, the Rockets showcased the fundamentals that McHale had harped on, with Marcus Morris providing an early spark off the bench before Harden caught fire in the third quarter to put the Pistons away to stay by leading a 12-1 run that closed that quarter and upped the lead to 72-57.
Harden produced a game-high 20 points and Omer Asik provided the Rockets a semblance of interior scoring by tying his career high of 14 points.
The Rockets were so comfortably in control that rookies Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas both made their season debuts.
Brandon Knight paced the Pistons with 16 points and seven assists.
Rockets interim coach Kelvin Sampson emphasized in pregame on the need for improved ball movement and greater selflessness, and during one critical blitz in the second quarter, the Rockets managed to showcase both.
After missing 13 of 20 shots in the first quarter, the Rockets connected on 9 of 16 in expanding their five-point lead to 43-27 on a transition dunk by Harden with 4:06 remaining in the first half.
Their bench was largely responsible for initiating the surge, with Morris carrying the torch with a burst that started late in the first quarter. His fadeaway jumper in the lane preceded a pair of 3-pointers from reserve point guard Toney Douglas and starter Jeremy Lin, the latter coming courtesy of an open look borne off a Chandler Parsons foray into the teeth of the Pistons' wary defense.
Just when the Pistons appeared on the verge of being blown away, they mounted a late rally, closing the half on a 9-0 run while the Rockets missed their final five shots. Greg Monroe bracketed that run with four points, including a layup at the buzzer off the feed from Knight, whose open 3-pointer with 62 seconds left cut the deficit to single digits for the first time since the Pistons trailed 34-25 with 7:13 left.
NOTES: The Rockets, who lost in Memphis on Friday night despite holding the Grizzlies to 37.2 percent shooting from the field, finished 9-0 last season when opponents shot under 40.0 percent. ... The Pistons will continue to tinker with a frontcourt featuring both Monroe and rookie Andre Drummond. Monroe recorded a triple-double (21 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) at Sacramento on Nov. 7 and Drummond posted a career-high 22 points at Oklahoma City on Friday.