Two games and three quarters into their longest road trip of the season, the Rockets appeared headed for a 1-2 start to the five-game West Coast swing. They had just been lit up for 77 points in the second and third quarter and were down 11 in Phoenix, with former Rocket Goran Dragic punishing his old team by ultimately scoring a career-high 35 points. But it was the Rockets' current point guard and an unlikely role player who saved the day.
With 34 seconds remaining in the game, Patrick Beverley hit a three pointer, grabbed a defensive rebound and stuck a pair of free throws to put the Rockets in the lead for good. Beverley scored 12 points in the final frame to lead the Rockets to a 115-112 win. Backup forward Donatas Montejunas scored all of his seven points in the fourth, including two critical free throws to finish off the Suns. Coming on the heels of the heartbreaking loss to Golden State on Friday and heading into back-to-back games against the Kings and Clippers, this was a critical win.
As I have mentioned here recently, this is the toughest stretch of the season for the Rockets. They made hay against mostly mediocre opponents, winning eight straight and now nine of their last ten. But these road games mixed with the difficult schedule once they return home is a key test of their true mettle as the push for playoff seeding begins in earnest.
A win in Sacramento, a place that has been very tough on the Rockets recently, would mean a winning record on this trip no matter what happens in L.A. against the surging Clippers. A 3-2 road trip would be a tremendous step in the right direction for this young team just beginning to turn the corner.
And it has been their best players leading the way. In the past ten games, James Harden has averaged 27 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. Dwight Howard has pitched in 23 points, nearly 13 boards and more than 2 blocks per game. The Rockets have six players averaging double digits in those games including their two point guards, who have combined for 22 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds.
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Incredibly, despite all the winning of late, they are still just one game ahead of the Clippers, who they face Wednesday, for the third spot in the conference, and a full four and a half games back of the conference-leading Thunder.
But this is an historic run for the Rockets. Only the 1993-94 team that won an NBA championship had a better record after 56 games at 40-16, and that team won its first 15 games of the season.
Still, there is no rest for the weary heading into Sacramento to face a Kings team that, despite its 20-36 record, has beaten the Rockets twice this year. The last game between the two, however, was a blowout win for the Rockets in Toyota Center. They could use another one of those, especially with the Clippers looming Wednesday.
Beverley and Montejunas picked a good night on Sunday to offer some late-game heroics. The Rockets will likely need more performances like that if they are to stay near the top of the Western Conference.