NEW YORK — Just over four minutes into Monday’s game, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Garnett gave a head butt to Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard.
That skirmish could have easily distracted the Rockets.
Instead the Rockets regained their focus and gradually pulled away from the Nets en route to a 113-99 victory.
“I think we’ve been locked into these last few games,” Houston guard James Harden said. “So that little hesitation wasn’t going to stop us from our goal and that was to win the game. That was to go out and execute defensively, offensively share the basketball and make sure everybody gets open shots.”
Of course the Rockets have the luxury of having the NBA’s leading scorer in Harden.
Harden gave a preview to fans of his All-Star capabilities by getting an efficient 30 points in three quarters and turning in a second productive showing against a struggling New York team in five days. After getting 25 in a blowout win at New York on 8-of-17 shooting on Thursday, Harden needed 30 minutes to shoot 9 of 13 from the floor, 4 of 7 from 3-point range and make all eight free throw attempts.
“It’s always good to come to New York and play,” Harden said. “The fans here want a show and for us it’s about winning. These two teams are struggling but we’re worried about ourselves.”
Twenty-eight of Harden’s points came after Garnett and Howard got into a skirmish underneath the basket with 7:53 remaining in the first quarter.
Garnett was positioned behind Howard near the baseline, and while fouling Howard, he came up with the ball. Howard took a small slap at Garnett’s chest, and Garnett then threw the ball off the back of Howard’s jersey. Howard took exception and responded with a right forearm, and then Garnett headbutted Howard on the right side of the face before Howard slapped Garnett in the neck.
Garnett wound up being ejected, and following the game nobody wanted to go in depth to discuss the incident.
Houston coach Kevin McHale said it was no big deal compared to the incidents during his playing days in the 1980s with the Boston Celtics Harden was unsure about what happened, and Howard said “I don’t know” twice during a 10-question interview session with reporters that lasted slightly under two minutes.
“In the good old days that was a play on,” said McHale, who also added he didn’t see any punches thrown. “Now they throw people out. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”
Added Howard after saying he didn’t know: “It doesn’t matter. We won the game. That’s all what matters.
First-hand accounts from players not involved also were uncertain.
“I just turned around and I just saw the scuffle,” Harden said. “I really don’t know what happened.”
“It escalated so quick and I don’t see why,” Brooklyn center Mason Plumlee said. “There was no hard foul. I’m sure it’ll be replayed a lot tonight. I didn’t see anything that was dirty until the punch.”
What mattered most for the Rockets was they regained their focus on both ends, and it seemed to consistently surface in the final 2 1/2 minutes of the first half and during an effective third quarter. Harden’s 3-pointer gave Houston a 60-52 lead at halftime and then he added 10 more points in the third when the Rockets outscored the Nets by a 26-18 margin and took an 86-70 lead into the fourth.
Harden’s 16th game with at least 30 points came on a night when five Rockets reached double figures.
Forward Donatas Motiejunas posted his fourth double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Forwards Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza added 13 and 12, respectively, as the Rockets shot 47.7 percent and made 16-of-40 3-pointers.
While the Rockets had no problems pulling away, the Nets shot themselves out of the game and lost their sixth straight, falling to 16-22. After Plumlee’s reverse dunk made it a 52-50 game with 2:35 remaining in the first half, Brooklyn was outscored 71-49 the rest of the way and missed 17 of 23 shots bridging the rest of the half and third quarter.
Plumlee collected a career-high 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting, but the rest of the Nets shot 39.7 percent.
Guard Jarrett Jack scored 13 points but shot 6-of-15. Guard Bojan Bogdanovic also had 13 points, and forward Joe Johnson and center Brook Lopez added 12 apiece.
“We’re going through a bad phase and the hardest thing to do is get out of it,” Johnson said.
NOTES: C Dwight Howard played at Barclays Center for the first time. He was injured April 2 when the Rockets previously visited Brooklyn and Feb. 5, 2013, when he was a Los Angeles Laker. Howard was originally the centerpiece of Brooklyn’s plan to lure a star, but before a trade could be made he decided to opt into the final year of his contract with Orlando. The Nets instead used the four first-round picks they had allotted for Howard in a deal for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. … Asked about Brooklyn’s offensive identity, coach Lionel Hollins said, “We have established an identity: We don’t make shots. That is an identity.” … Houston coach Kevin McHale oversaw Minnesota’s draft when it selected F Kevin Garnett as a 19-year-old. “When he was a young kid, he said, ‘I’m going to play longer in the NBA than I am old right now,'” McHale said. “I said, ‘You’re absolutely out of your mind,’ but he did it.”
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