Not only were the Rockets down, trailing by as many as 16, and by 14 with nine minutes left, they were being bullied. If there had been sand on the pitch, Jonas Valanciunas would have thrown it in someone’s face.
They were frustrated with officials. The Pelicans were scoring easily. The game looked increasingly familiar to anyone who hadn’t erased the Rockets’ season before March from their memory banks.
For most of the season, this was a game that had turned into the kind the Rockets would lose, probably badly. But the Rockets had come to believe they had changed. On Friday, with a fourth-quarter comeback built almost entirely on toughness, they proved it.
The Rockets rallied to stun the Pelicans, 114-112, a dramatic turnaround not only for their deficit in the second half, but also for how the Pelicans had played them in the previous game.
“The Pelicans, they always give us a fight,” said guard Kevin Porter Jr. after the Rockets ended a five-game losing streak against the Pelicans. “We wanted to give them a fight. Last time, in NOLA, we got beat up and we sure remember it. That’s basically what the game was like, physical, intense.
They won when rookie Jabari Smith Jr., the 6-10 teenage incarnation of their growth, nailed the game-winning 3-pointer with four-tenths of a second remaining. But they’d already shown how much they’d changed by withstanding every Pelicans who threw at them, giving the Rockets their first three-game hitting streak of the season, all against teams battling for playoff berth or a postseason berth.
“It says a lot,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “It says a lot about our resilience. He speaks volumes about our execution. He says a lot about the guys we have in that locker room. Lots of guys played well at both ends of the pitch.
“He says… that we are moving in the right direction; we feel good about ourselves. There has been an improvement.
Smith’s 3-pointer for the win, the latest in his incredible reversal from misfire to surge, may have represented the Rockets’ improvement, with five wins in seven games, coupled with his own climbing confidence, which led him to clap madly to call for ball and last shot. But it was only the latest, and not the only example.
Jae’Sean Tate looked things over, waited an extra beat to make sure Smith was beyond Naji Marshall’s reach and then sent his inbound pass to him. Smith took two dribbles to his right and nailed his 3.
“I wasn’t the first option, but because the first options weren’t open, I just got to the ball and trusted myself,” said Smith, who returned to the floor to hand his dad the play ball and then he returned to the locker room to get soaked by his teammates.
“They trust me to make that shot. They put that trust in me through failures. They are the reason I had the confidence to fire that shot.
If Smith’s match winner exemplified how things have turned, nothing better exemplified Friday’s comeback and the attitude that made it possible than Alperen Sengun’s match with Valanciunas. They had squared off during a timeout in the third quarter. Valanciunas then spent the next few minutes dominating Sengun on the inside, tossing him aside like little brother playing one-on-one on the driveway.
When they returned in the fourth quarter, Sengun filled back. Valanciunas, who had 20 points and 15 rebounds when he sat down with three minutes left in the third quarter, had two points and two rebounds the rest of the way, with Silas repeatedly praising Sengun’s defense in the fourth quarter.
The Rockets had tried Sengun, Usman Garuba, Boban Marjanovic and Smith on Valanciunas, along with double teams to stop him.
But as excited as Valanciunas seemed about the exchange with Sengun, Sengun was just as motivated in the fourth quarter.
“It made me angry,” Sengun said. “I made him angry. We fought, actually. It wasn’t like a normal game. i’m fighting. I never give up. I will do my job every time.
“We fight throughout the game, but Valanciunas is a big boy, a strong boy. We fight. We never give up. Also, in some moments of the game, we lost focus. What we have learned this season, we have not given up. We go back, then we fight, then we win the game.
It took a number of big plays down the stretch. Porter, who had 20 points with six assists, stripped Brandon Ingram and trailed off for a 3-pointer. Jalen Green, who had 25 points, nailed a jumper deep with one foot on the line, with 35.8 seconds left. The Rockets got enough stops, with the Pelicans missing four of their five shots in the final two minutes.
New Orleans’ last lob with four-tenths of a second left was also tipped by Marjanovic, forcing time to run out before it could be caught.
The Rockets relied on their usual strength, outscoring the Pelicans on the glass to outscore them by 15 rebounds, outscoring them 18-8 in second chance points. It was the ninth time they’ve outscored a team by at least 15 points, one fewer than their total over the past five seasons combined.
However, they believed that everything they did to achieve a victory showed their growth.
“It was a game that we needed just to show our maturity game after game,” Porter said. “We just wanted to stop and keep competing, not let the score dictate what we wanted to do out there.”
There have been times, many of them, where the Rockets would let the score, the opponent, and the calls they believed were going against them lead to distraction and loss. On Friday, everything fueled them, leading not only to a comeback win, but tangible proof that, despite all the steps still needed, they were no longer pushovers.