HOUSTON — Having spent the majority of this season discussing the need to make free-agent center Dwight Howard a focal point of their offense, the Houston Rockets have finally put that plan into action.
Howard delivered a clinic in post scoring and paced a dominating interior performance by the Rockets in their 122-108 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.
Howard recorded his 32nd double-double, with 34 points and 14 rebounds, and combined with forward Terrence Jones (19 points, nine rebounds) to shoot 19-for-29 from the floor. Houston (33-17) hit 11 of 16 3-pointers, but the overwhelming edge inside was crucial and emblematic of the upward trajectory Howard has been on of late.
During the Rockets’ four-game winning streak, Howard is averaging 26 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 59.3 percent from the floor and 64.5 percent from the line. It’s a small yet tantalizing sample size.
“We did a better job tonight,” Howard said. “We just gotta do it both ways, get up and down, get some points in transition, work the pick-and-roll and also post up. Once we get all three things figured out on the offensive end and on the defensive end get stops, then we will become a better team.”
The Suns (29-20) erased a 12-point deficit in the first quarter and led by as many as six points midway through the second before slowly succumbing to their interior ineptitude. Phoenix kept pace with its breathtaking transition offense prior to the intermission, but after running the Rockets ragged in the first half, the Suns mustered just one fast-break point in the final two quarters — zero in the decisive fourth.
Rockets guard James Harden added 23 points, including hitting all 12 free throw attempts, while forward Chandler Parsons had 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Houston hit 33 of 42 free throws (78.6 percent) and finished with a plus-7 advantage in fast-break points.
“We didn’t stop anybody,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We didn’t stop anybody (Tuesday) night either (in a home loss to the Chicago Bulls). Our defense hasn’t been very good. Houston shot 55 percent and got whatever they wanted.”
Guard Goran Dragic led six Suns in double figures, with 23 points, while adding eight assists and six rebounds. Twins Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris chipped in 12 and 11 bench points, respectively. Phoenix reserves combined for 46 points to outpace the Houston bench by 27.
Clearly intent upon setting a tempo that eluded them during their first meeting with Phoenix, a 97-88 home loss Dec. 4, the Rockets raced to a double-digit lead by the 9:38 mark of the first quarter. Guard Patrick Beverley capped the opening salvo by hitting a 3-pointer for a 12-2 lead.
While Harden and Howard sat early in the second quarter, Phoenix ran wild, closing the half with 17 fast-break points and eventually surging to a 46-40 lead before Howard scored inside to stall an 18-5 Phoenix rally.
Largely thanks to Howard, the Rockets led 66-63 at the intermission. In the third quarter, Howard led the way to workable margin with back-to-back baskets in the restricted area for an 87-78 lead with 4:13 to play.
The Suns closed to within 95-92 early in the fourth on Markieff Morris’ jumper before Howard scored on a hook shot to spark the final push.
“We just have to work on passing the ball to him, being better post feeders,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “I thought we hit him a couple of times.”
Said Dragic: “Their bigs, they can all stretch the floor and then they were able to put the ball in Howard’s hands and it’s kind of tough to double team. He’s a tough cover.”
NOTES: Suns G Goran Dragic might have taken some observers by surprise this season with averages of 20.1 points and 6.0 assists but Rockets coach Kevin McHale isn’t among that group. During his final season in Houston (2011-12), Dragic averaged 18.0 points and 8.4 assists while starting 28 games as G Kyle Lowry battled injury. “I saw Goran do the same thing — when Kyle was hurt here — with us about the same level,” McHale said. “It was very impressive. I’ve seen him do it before.” … The Rockets expect C Omer Asik to return to practice without restriction later this week. Asik missed his 33rd game Wednesday night and hasn’t played since Dec. 2 while battling right thigh/knee woes. … Phoenix entered Wednesday 10-8 without G Eric Bledsoe (right knee), another accomplishment in their resurgent season. “The chemistry is pretty good between our guys,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We play hard, for the most part, and during this stretch we’ve done a good job of taking care of the ball.”
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