Jabari Smith Jr. clapped and clapped, wanting the ball and the game back in his hands.
The Rockets were back to their last chance. Smith hadn’t made a 3 all night, but she never doubted that he would make him last of him, having wanted those shots as part of a breakthrough as stunning as it could have been unexpected.
With four seconds left and the Rockets down by one, Jae’Sean Tate found Smith at the top of the circle. Smith took two dribbles to his right and ran his shot to Naji Marshall, pinning him with .4 left and lifting the Rockets past the Pelicans, 114-112, at the Toyota Center on Friday.
With that, the Rockets not only showed their improvement coming from losses to the Pelicans to Friday’s comeback, but snapped their first three-game hitting streak in five tries this season.
They got it with all early goals in double figures, led by Jalen Green’s 25 points with six assists and Kevin Porter Jr.’s 20. Time is running out before he can be caught.
The Rockets trailed by 15 with nine minutes left, their 19-0 halftime lead a distant memory. Jonas Valanciunas had spent the third quarter pushing them around. Brandon Ingram, who finished with 31 points, scored easily.
The Rockets, however, struck back. And they did so by improving on how the Pelicans beat them.
Alperen Sengun and Valanciunas returned and Sengun answered Valanciunas’ muscles with energy. He helped spark a run, with KJ Martin getting underway. The Rockets rushed through a 17-4 run to move within a point heading into the final four minutes.
The Pelicans got back to Ingram, who fouled on consecutive possessions, making all four free throws. The Pelicans led by six after the Rockets missed 3 consecutive wide openers. But when Porter stripped Ingram and grounded for a 3, his fifth of the night, the Rockets fell back to within threes with 2:13 left.
The Rockets got the stoppage they needed, but after Ingram swept a Green drive, he finished a break at the other end for a five-point lead over the Pelicans with 1:25 left.
Martin scored one play on the game, giving him nine points in the fourth quarter, and the Pelicans’ Trey Murphy III missed a 3.
The Rockets called time out and had a play to a Green 3, but he had one foot over the line, leaving the Rockets one run behind.
They had one last chance when Ingram missed a pair of jumpers, with the Rockets calling time outs with four seconds left.
Hand to hand
Sengun tried and failed on Valanciunas. She didn’t do well. But the problem wasn’t just with the boo that she didn’t get.
He didn’t get a phone call, and he didn’t get it moments later when Ingram sent a forearm into his car, or later when Valanciunas shoved him away like an older brother nagging his little brother. But none of that was the problem, even if the Rockets thought it was.
During a timeout, Valanciunas stuck his arm through Sengun’s, with Sengun shoving him aside and the centers squared off like a pre-fight weigh-in.
For several minutes, they butted heads in the game, scoring and scoring on three consecutive possessions. But when Sengun missed a running hook hard, Valanciunas winced as if he’d caught a big whiff of a toxic waste dump.
Then he went to work and dominated Sengun from the floor. After hitting 1-of-3 in the first quarter, Valanciunas shot 8-of-12, scoring 20 points and 15 rebounds over the three quarters.
Sengun answered a bit in the fourth quarter. But when Sengun and Smith spend their offseason with Rockets strength coach Willie Cruz, they can have Friday’s third-quarter highlights on a motivating cycle.
They can also see the way Sengun rallied to score the comeback in the fourth.
Usual turnover issues, uncommon timing
As bad as the Rockets got off to a bad start, losing 14 seven minutes into the game and stopping nothing, they gave themselves a chance to respond by removing their biggest flaw. It only lasted a quarter.
The Rockets didn’t have a turnover in the first quarter, so when they started getting shutouts, they turned things around.
They went through a 19-0 run as the Pelicans got as cold as they had been to start the game. The Pels hit 6 of 9 shots in the 6 1/2 minutes to start the game. They were scoreless for six minutes as the Rockets made their run.
The Rockets couldn’t expect the Pelicans to continue missing, not in the way they started the game, and not considering there was a good chance Ingram and Valanciunas would check in.
But they hurt themselves, taking away the possibility of keeping up.
They followed up the quarter with no turnover by committing eight in the second quarter, leading to 15 points in New Orleans.
This allowed the Pelicans to make seven more shots and five more free throws in the second quarter. The Rockets misfired in the fourth, but the Pelicans missed all six of their 3s in the quarter after making the game’s first six, and still outscored the Rockets 28-15 after the Rockets took their major lead.
While there’s nothing new about the Rockets’ turnover issues, rarely has it been more clearly damaging and more obvious about what a difference it would make if they could take care of the ball.
The salt of life
Rockets head coach Stephen Silas turned things around. Twice.
He played Marjanovic in the second quarter, putting a bigger – much bigger – body on Valanciunas. And when he did, he didn’t do it with a zonal defence, as he almost always does when Marjanovic plays before the final minutes of a blowout.
He was probably just trying to give Sengun a few more minutes on the bench and didn’t want to ask Usman Garuba to confront Valanciunas on the inside. Marjanovic played just two minutes before Sengun returned, playing 16 minutes into the first half.
But if playing Marjanovic and not playing a zone wasn’t varied enough, he didn’t shoot in his two minutes, the greatest rarity of all.