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Rockets rally to top undermanned Pelicans

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HOUSTON — Having staggered through a pair of ugly road losses in Denver and Minnesota, the Houston Rockets gave indication early Saturday night that a return home had little influence on their effort.

That was before guards James Harden and Jeremy Lin converted back-to-back driving layups to complete a comeback from a 15-point deficit in a 111-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans at Toyota Center.

Harden supplied the Rockets (53-27) their first lead since midway through the second quarter with 1:04 left, and Lin pushed the lead to 107-104 with 33 seconds remaining. The Rockets closed the contest with a 15-0 run and lowered their magic number to clinching home-court advantage in the Western Conference quarterfinals to one.

“We needed this win more than anything, especially for our confidence having Patrick (Beverley) and having Dwight (Howard) back,” Harden said. “Just to give ourselves a little cushion to hopefully lock down that four seed, but this game was critical for us.”

Harden paired 33 points with 13 assists, his fifth 30-10 game since March 22, while Lin added 18 points and four steals off the bench.

Forward Luke Babbitt scored a career-high 24 points for the Pelicans (32-48) while guard Austin Rivers added a season-high 20 points plus 10 rebounds and six assists. Guard Anthony Morrow chipped in 20 points and teamed with Babbitt and Rivers to shoot 8 of 19 on 3-pointers.

Beverley scored a career-high-tying 20 points and shot 6 of 7 in the second half of his return from an eight-game injury hiatus.

Beverley drilled a pair of corner 3s in consecutive possessions, the second of which bounced straight up off the rim before dropping into the net. That basket cut the deficit to 104-103 with 1:36 to play.

Babbitt converted a driving layup with 2:47 left — the last Pelicans basket.

New Orleans extended its losing skid to eight games.

“Basically we didn’t execute down the stretch like we needed to,” Morrow said. “Offensively, the last few plays we ran, anytime you’re not organized offensively and don’t execute, it’s almost like a turnover against a team like Houston.”

Missing their top seven scorers, the Pelicans were quick to show they had no intention of rolling over. Rivers drilled a 3 to open the second quarter and secure the lead and New Orleans held the Rockets scoreless for nearly three minutes while building a 35-31 advantage.

Their concerted defensive effort, absent for most of the season even when their roster was largely intact, propelled the Pelicans to a commanding lead during a critical stretch closing the first half.

After missing all three 3-point attempts in the first quarter, the Pelicans drilled 6 of 10 in the second, including five over the final four-plus minutes of the first half. Their lone non-trey of that span came when center Alexis Ajinca completed a three-point play at the 4:17 mark.

“We’re just out there playing hard for each other,” Babbitt said of the rally. “That’s what Coach is preaching and we’re buying into that.”

When Morrow drained a 26-footer with 63 seconds left in the half, the Pelicans led 59-44 and set the stage for the Rockets to mount a series of surges that extended into the waning minutes of the fourth. Their final push proved decisive and kept home-court advantage in their grasp.

“We just wanted to get our momentum back,” Beverley said. “We understood we were going to come in slow. Me and Dwight have not been in the starting lineup for almost two weeks, so we understood we were going to come out a little rusty, which we did.

“We kind of got our groove back in the second half.”

NOTES: Rockets G Patrick Beverley returned to the starting lineup after missing eight games because of a right meniscus tear. Through intense rehab, Beverley managed a comeback in advance of the postseason, an apparent necessity given the steady deterioration of the Rockets’ defense. “I just think the biggest thing is my wind and my rhythm, and me getting confidence playing on (the knee) again instead of waiting for the playoffs to just jump in it,” Beverley said. “I think this is a great timetable for the injury I had.” … Rockets C Dwight Howard also returned after missing eight games because of a left ankle strain. … With Pelicans guards Brian Roberts (left ankle) and Tyreke Evans (right knee bone bruise) sidelined, New Orleans was down seven rotation players Saturday night. With the end of the season near, playing with determination through adversity is a challenge. “We need to rally around each other in times like this,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “Not forget that we’re trying to win games and not just get through.”

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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