HOUSTON (AP) — Before Wednesday night’s game against the Utah Jazz, Houston coach Kevin McHale got his team together and explained the possible implications for the postseason.
Apparently, the Rockets played close attention to McHale’s pregame talk.
James Harden had 29 points and the Rockets improved their positioning in the Western Conference playoff race with a 100-93 win.
Jeremy Lin scored 24 for the Rockets, who currently hold the No. 7 spot in the West. They lead the idle Los Angeles Lakers by 1 1/2 games and are three ahead of the sliding Jazz.
“We only have a handful of games left, and this game today was a huge game from standings, to them trying to catch us, to us having the tiebreaker,” Harden said. “Guys played like it, especially at the beginning.”
The Rockets led by 19 points after three quarters and withstood a late surge by the Jazz to hold on for the victory.
“This was a huge game for us going forward and we wanted to come out and set the tone early,” Houston’s Chandler Parsons said.
Utah has lost 10 of its last 13 games. Gordon Hayward led the Jazz with 27 points, matching a season high, and Al Jefferson added 18 points and 11 rebounds.
“We’re still alive,” Jazz coach Ty Corbin said. “We’ve slid and this is a tough loss for us, but we’re still in the fight and we’ll approach every game trying to contain and compete.”
Harden went 17 for 18 at the line as Houston made 26 free throws, compared to 16 for the Jazz.
Lin had a strong third quarter, scoring 10 points, including seven straight for the Rockets early in the period. The point guard has scored at least 21 points in each of the last three games.
The Jazz finally found some offense, scoring 28 points in the quarter, but the Rockets still led by 19 heading into the fourth.
“I thought that Jeremy made some big hoops coming down the stretch when we needed them,” McHale said. “They were really intent on staying with James in the second half and really not giving him a lot of room, so Jeremy really broke free.”
The Jazz then put together a 13-4 run to trim Houston’s lead to 84-74. Alec Burks scored seven points in the spurt.
Hayward helped Utah pull within five with 1 1/2 minutes to go, but Harden made five free throws and Lin added two more to help secure the win.
The Jazz have an NBA-leading 13 double-digit comebacks this season, but weren’t able to overcome their terrible first half in Houston.
“You can’t get down to a team like this at home and expect to come back,” Haywood said. “We got into too big of a hole and they are too good of a team and too talented offensively to expect to keep them without scoring.”
The Rockets came out strong after their worst offensive showing of the season in a 108-78 loss to Golden State on Sunday.
“We played really well in stretches in that game,” McHale said. “We got a little conservative and started getting slow. We started nursing the lead and you can’t do that.”
Houston led from the start, hitting nine of its first 13 shots. Harden picked up two early fouls and went to the bench with 5:18 left in the first quarter, but the Rockets continued to shoot well without the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer and led 25-17 after one.
The Jazz, meanwhile, got off to another sluggish start on the road, going 8 for 23 from the field and hitting only one 3-pointer in the opening quarter.
It only got uglier for Utah in the second.
Harden finished a fast break with a layup and sank a 3-pointer early in a 17-6 Houston run that extended the lead to 20. Utah had more turnovers (four) than field goals (three) in a 5-minute stretch.
The Rockets mustered only two field goals in the last four minutes of the half and still led 52-33 at the break. Harden had 20 points and the Rockets shot 53 percent (20 of 38) in the first half.
Houston also outrebounded the lifeless Jazz 24-13 in the first two periods and scored 10 points off eight Jazz turnovers.
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