HOUSTON The memory of the interior bludgeoning administered by the Timberwolves on Friday paired with the image of what Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors could do for the Jazz if left unencumbered produced a sense of urgency for the Rockets' big men.
There was no getting around just how embarrassed the Rockets were after Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic pushed them around two days earlier. Not much needed to be said before the Jazz arrived on Sunday.
Aided by an unexpected source the Rockets held their own in the paint, part of a stellar defensive effort at the foundation of their 101-85 win.
Rookie center Greg Smith, recalled from Rio Grande Valley earlier Sunday, supplied some early fuel with his active, frenetic contribution. When veteran Samuel Dalembert got his bearings following his benching for tardiness, the Rockets (18-14) were fully back in stride.
"We knew they had two dominant bigs down low (in Jefferson and Millsap)," said Rockets forward Patrick Patterson, who started for Dalembert. "We had to do whatever we could to stop them. Be physical, rebound, and just play a lot tougher than we have been lately.
"It was just horrible the way we played (against the Timberwolves). We had a great practice (Saturday), hit the key points that coach (Kevin McHale) was emphasizing, and came out here and just executed."
Patterson surrendered 55 pounds to Jefferson on the block, but he didn't shy from the defensive challenge. And if McHale didn't make clear to Dalembert his displeasure with Dalembert being late for the walk-through by starting Patterson in his place, he drove the point home by calling for Smith and not Dalembert nine minutes into the first quarter.
Smith was what the Rockets sought defensively. He was a whirling dervish and aggressive to a fault. But while recording five fouls in 11 minutes, Smith also blocked four shots. He grabbed three rebounds, scored a basket and set hard screens. Above all things he was physical, tossing around his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame with reckless impunity.
"That's what happens when you go out there and play hard and put all your effort into every play," said Smith, who filled the void left by the loss of reserve center Jordan Hill, who'll miss at least two weeks with a sprained right MCL. "You can do those type of things.
"I don't have to worry about scoring or being (an offensive) threat. I just worry about defense and being a shutdown guy and taking care of the offensive boards. Just do my job for the team. Everybody has their job, their role. I want to figure out that role to be the defensive stopper."
Despite his infectious energy, Smith could only do so much. The Jazz (15-15) scored 28 points in the paint in the first half. Jefferson and Millsap scored 24 of their combined 45 points prior to intermission. It wasn't until Dalembert began to impose his will that momentum swung.
Smith had picked up fouls in rapid succession. Patterson was surrendering too much bulk on the block. Only Dalembert possessed the savvy and size to disrupt Jefferson enough to impede him. While the Rockets turned a one-point halftime deficit into a 72-64 lead entering the fourth quarter, the Jazz found it difficult to collect points inside. After the Jazz mustered one final push led by Millsap to within 80-78, the Rockets stiffened on the interior and finished the job they started.
"We couldn't stop (Jefferson) out there for a while scoring inside, but after a while we just started to put pressure on him," Dalembert said. "I got out there after a couple of fouls and slowed down his offensive game."
While Luis Scola contributed the offense (26 points) and chipped in a team-high nine rebounds, Dalembert, Patterson and Smith handled the grunt work. That trio combined for 14 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots. The Jazz managed only eight points in the paint in the second half.
What the Rockets managed was a complete departure from their debacle against the Timberwolves. Who didn't see that effort coming?
"We got a little bit more aggressive with trying to get them out of there," McHale said. "It's the one thing we didn't do the game before.
"This game isn't about scheme; this game is about going out there and knocking your guy out of the paint. Just try to be aggressive. You can bring help, but you can't bring help for guys as low as they get (on the block). Our guys did a better job of three-quartering, bodying, trying to get around the front and making it hard to get the ball so they couldn't pinpoint the pass. And then we just kept battling."
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