HOUSTON There was an experimental quality to the Houston Rockets' 96-82 win over the Detroit Pistons Saturday night.
Maybe it was because the boss, coach Kevin McHale, was out of the office; he was on leave tending to a personal matter. Maybe it was because they thought nobody was watching; a late-arriving crowd sported a lot of Texas A&M gear, evidence of priorities in these parts. Or maybe it was because they were playing the winless Detroit Pistons, and everybody beats the Detroit Pistons.
In any case, under the direction of Kelvin Sampson, James Harden played the point a little, rookie Terrence Jones played for the first time at all, and reserves Greg Smith, Toney Douglas and Marcus Morris all got a little more time than usual. Even Donatas Motiejunas and Daequan Cook got in.
"We played good, especially the second unit," Sampson said. "I think the second unit came in and really boosted us."
Morris had 12 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes at power forward. Backup point guard Toney Douglas had 11 points, two assists and four turnovers in 21 minutes, and every other Rocket that entered the game which was all the Rockets there are -- scored at least two. Jones had five points in his NBA debut.
Brandon Knight led Detroit with 16 points and seven assists, but had five turnovers. Greg Monroe added 12 points and 11 rebounds.
It was a relief. Even a little relaxing, if an NBA game can be.
"This is still the NBA," Harden said. "We'll take any win."
It helped that Houston controlled the game from tip to buzzer. Carlos Delfino hita 3-pointer with 9:43 to play that gave the Rockets their biggest lead of the season, 78-57.
The game was a muddy affair. But that's the way Rockets games are this year, they being the youngest team in the NBA and all. Houston entered the game shooting 41 percent from the floor and 28 percent from the 3-point line.
But those numbers were a little lower than expected, even for a team that knew it was going to be a little rugged on offense early in the year. That didn't change much on Saturday. The Rockets shot 40 percent from the floor and 34 percent from the arc. But the sense of overall lethargy that had consumed them in their last home game was gone.
Sampson and all the players were happy with their defensive performance.
"We never let down defensively," Sampson said.
Detroit (0-7) shot just 40 percent, went 7-for-20 from the 3-point line and had 16 turnovers. So the Rockets saw Saturday's game as a progressive signal.
"We're gonna start putting things together," said Harden, who scored 20 on 6-for-14 shooting. "Offensively we've got to get a feel for each other."
Saturday's game also brought more clearly into focus a reality that was predictable, but may have needed some demonstration anyway hot as Harden was the first three games, he will not be doing anything like leading the NBA in scoring this season. Which is too bad for the Rockets, because that's probably what it would take to make them anything other than a middle-of-the-pack Western Conference team this year. Even general manager Daryl Morey acknowledged that much in a local radio interview earlier in the week, saying the goal for this season was to get into the playoffs, which the Rockets keep barely missing.
That all said, there is a core in Houston now, and that core is a .500 team for the moment. The Rockets got there Saturday in all kinds of boring little ways. Getting to the foul line (where they had a 26-16 advantage in attempts), forcing turnovers (16-14) and mainly getting into the paint, where they outscored the Pistons 44-28.
Blowing out the Pistons did not require anyone to play like a superstar. It mainly involved letting the Pistons reveal themselves, which happened in earnest in the third quarter. At that point Tayshaun Prince hit the bench, which is the universal signal for "Live to fight another day."
The win was Houston's first at home this season, and snapped a three-game losing streak.
"They were on a losing streak and we were on a losing streak," Rockets forward Chandler Parsons said. "Someone had to end it."