If playing the best teams in the NBA is used as measuring stick, then the Rockets have to like the way they measured out following their 106-103 victory over the Heat in front of 18,523 fans, the fourth largest regular season crowd in Toyota Center history.
Houston continues to pace the NBA in 2014, improving to 20-6 since the start of January and ended their seven game losing streak to LeBron James and the Heat.
The Rockets bolted out of the gates and immediately got the fans on their feet, scoring the first seven points of the game. Chandler Parsons, who returned to the lineup after missing the win over the Pistons on Saturday with a sinus infection, had a hand in all three Rockets baskets. First he knocked down a jumper on the opening possession of the game, then found a cutting Terrence Jones for a slam and finally spotted Pat Beverley at the 3-point line for a quick seven point bulge just 1:20 into the game.
That first triple from Beverley was one of five 3-pointers he connected on for the second straight game, tying a career high. The offense clicked for the entire quarter, with the Rockets making 15-of-23 shots (65.2 percent) and holding a 39-32 lead after the first period. The only reason the spread was not larger was the Rockets inability to defend the Heat in transition. Miami had 11 fast break point in the quarter, while the Rockets had zero.
That theme continued through the first half, with Miami increasing their advantage to 17-0 in fast break points and closing the gap on the scoreboard to 53-52. Houston's number one weakness also showed up with the Rockets committing nine turnovers in the quarter. But as was the case to open the game, Houston rebuilt and then extended their lead in the third quarter once again with their starters dominating James and his group.
Houston opened the second half with a 9-2 run and the lead was 15 points with just under three minute remaining in the third quarter. But Miami tied the game in the fourth quarter at 91 and again at 93, before another Rockets run gave Houston some breathing room. Houston still led by six with 30 seconds left, but Michael Beasley drained his fourth 3-pointer of the game to give him a season high 24 points and Houston followed that up with their biggest gaffe of the game.
James Harden tried to make a full court pass to Dwight Howard, but the ball sailed well over his head for the Rockets' 18th turnover of the game. That set up James to be the hero.
James came to Houston off of a 61-point performance in Charlotte on Monday night, a career high and franchise record. But after a 19-point first half, James was nearly invisible in the second half. Instead of looking to get something going to the basket or attempting to score quickly with 13 seconds still remaining, James was clearly looking for the game-tying 3-pointer. Dwight Howard ended up defending James on a switch and he forced him to take a long shot over his outstretched arms. The ball clanged off the backboard and rim to keep James scoreless in the fourth quarter and seal up a three point victory for the Rockets.
"That was great defense by Dwight," Rockets head coach Kevin McHale said. "We were going to switch everything. I didn't know if they were going to go for a two. I didn't want to foul right away. Then when we got in the foul zone, they were so spread out, I was like, well, I sure hope the guy doesn't make a 40-footer. Dwight played really good defense and they took a tough shot and we got out of there with a win."
"I wanted to keep him with the ball in his left hand and try to make him do a step-back 3 (pointer)," Howard said. "I knew that if the ball had gone to his right hand, he would have gotten an opportunity to get in to a rhythm with his shot."
Howard led the Rockets with 22 points and 16 rebounds, his 40th double-double of the season. The last time a Rockets player reached 40 double-doubles in a season was Charles Barkley, who had 42 in 1997-98.
All five starters scored in double-figures for the 16th time this season. Houston is 14-2 in those games. Two other Rockets joined Howard with double-doubles. Harden scored 22 points and also had 11 assists and Terrence Jones had 19 points and 12 rebounds. Beverley scored 19 points and had three steals, while Parsons finished with 10 points and eight assists.
Houston remained undefeated at Toyota Center this season against eastern conference teams (13-0) and still have the best record in the NBA since Jan. 1, now at 20-6.
"Everyone is pumping it up because it's the Heat," Harden said about whether this was a big win or just another win. "It doesn't count for more wins. We play another game tomorrow against Orlando. It's the same thing."
"It's a good win, they're a great team, they're the champs," Parsons said. "They are where we want to be and this is a big win for us. But at the end of the day, it means nothing if we lose to the Magic tomorrow."