HOUSTON - Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale had been seething for days following last Saturday's loss in Phoenix, confronting his players with his disgust. For one night at least on Wednesday, the Rockets channeled the ire of their coach into a spirited performance on both ends of the court.
Following an uneven start the Rockets responded to the challenge McHale issued and took control, uncharacteristically on defense, rolling to a 111-81 victory over the Suns at Toyota Center.
"The guys really D'd up," McHale said. "I thought they really locked in defensively. That group gave us great effort on the defensive end, and that kind of got us out running a little bit more and got us out on the break.
"Again, that same group started the third (quarter) and they had really good defensive intensity. We've been working really hard at it, and it's good to see some results."
When Suns swingman Jared Dudley drilled a corner 3-pointer at the 5:54 mark of the second quarter, Phoenix (22-43) secured its largest lead of the game at 43-38. Houston followed by holding the Suns to 1-fo-7 shooting down the stretch of that quarter and forced three turnovers in the process. Its defense served as the foundation for a 20-2 spurt, a burst that capped the second quarter and continued deep into the third.
The Rockets extended their 13-point halftime lead to 67-48 on two Omer Asik free throws at the 9:30 mark of the third. Phoenix offered one last rally, cutting the deficit to 11 before the Rockets closed the third period with a 23-6 run that rendered the fourth quarter moot.
"That's probably the first time I felt we didn't compete as a unit and that's just unacceptable," Suns coach Lindsey Hunter said. "These are the situations you get put in when you find out who's going to be with you and who isn't.
"It's very disappointing, very embarrassing, and unacceptable."
Houston rookie forward Donatas Motiejunas was one of the few Rockets engaged from the opening tip, and his energy resulted in a career-high 19 points. Rockets guard James Harden added 18 points while his backcourt mate, Jeremy Lin, was instrumental in the critical rallies. Lin finished with 13 points and six assists while playing just 25 minutes.
Wesley Johnson rode a torrid start for 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting early in the second, but he fizzled like his teammates and missed five of his last six shots en route to 15 points. The Suns shot just 41.9 percent, and after shooting 39 free throws in their 107-105 win over Houston four nights ago, finished 7 for 10 from the line on Wednesday night.
"It's tough losing a game like that," Johnson said. "Houston started to get rolling and then they were making their shots and it seemed like everything they were doing was going right, and everything we were doing was going wrong."
The Suns corralled 17 offensive rebounds in what was, for the Rockets, the front half of a home-and-home back-to-back. Phoenix grabbed five offensive rebounds this time, 12.5 percent of available offensive boards.
"Everyone was helping each other with the defensive rebounds because defensive rebounding is not only the big guys' jobs; it's also the perimeter (players' responsibility)," Motiejunas said. "That was really important, everybody being locked on, and as soon as we get a defensive rebound, push the ball."
NOTES: With the Suns spiraling toward their worst finish as a franchise since their 29-53 season in 2003-04, it's easy to assume Phoenix is merely playing out the string. But with a poorly constructed roster plus an offseason of uncertainty ahead, the Suns have plenty to play for. "That's what I stress to them all the time," Suns coach Lindsey Hunter said. "That (an evaluation period) is what it is for all of us. I know a lot of people will assume we're not playing for anything. You're playing for a lot. You're playing for your career; you're playing for your reputation. You're playing to let an organization know that you care about the future." ... McHale spent a lengthy period of time pregame chatting with Suns guard Goran Dragic, who played for the Rockets for more than a year before signing with Phoenix last offseason. McHale also caught up with Suns and former Rockets forward Luis Scola during shoot-around earlier Wednesday. "When you coach guys and spend a lot of time around them, it's always good to see guys," McHale said.