HOUSTON Rockets coach Kevin McHale sat at the dais and shared details on how much last Friday's loss to the Timberwolves gnawed at him, how it burrowed under his skin like a parasite and festered there all through the night and into the early stages of the following morning.
He recounted this experience with a broad, almost boastful smile on his face late Wednesday night. His Rockets had just survived a wrestling match with a team the 76ers - seemingly better equipped for such a physical affair, and for a fleeting moment McHale was proud and elated.
The Rockets showed no fear of getting down and dirty, and when the moment came for them to respond to what the 76ers presented, the Rockets responded and closed out a 93-87 victory at Toyota Center.
After splitting a season-long, six-game road trip, the Rockets (20-14) have won four of five games on their current six-game home stand. Two stretches one late in the second quarter, another midway through he third seemed to indicate that the Rockets would give this one away. Then they rallied behind Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry and their defense.
"We're getting the feeling that we can win different games different ways," McHale said. "It was a good, Wednesday night, before the All-Star break win."
McHale viewed the upcoming mini-vacation as some sort of specter. He was concerned that his team would check out early, and for a while it appeared that they were determined to do so against a desperate foe.
The Rockets dropped the 76ers (20-14) into a 10-point hole with 1:23 remaining in the first half only to sandwich two missed shots around a turnover. The 76ers responded with an 8-0 run before Goran Dragic, who kept the Rockets afloat in the first half, drilled a 17-foot jumper.
In the third they repeated the cycle, building a 54-46 lead on Chandler Parsons' 3-pointer at the 8:29 mark. Three turnovers in four possessions followed, and in the blink of an eye the Rockets trailed 56-54. The 76ers scored in transition, in the paint and off turnovers. They had dropped four consecutive games and were pressed to end the skid.
But after committing a dozen turnovers through three periods the Rockets were guilty of just two turnovers in the fourth. That set the foundation for an offense that was reasonably sharp given the 76ers' pedigree as the top defense in the NBA. By taking better care of the ball the Rockets created the opportunity to their starting guards to explode.
Kevin Martin, who had just two points heading into the fourth period, erupted for 14 in the final quarter. Shackled by the defensive wizardry of 76ers forward Andre Iguodala, Martin worked his way free for a pair of 3-pointers that helped the Rockets to reclaim the momentum. Those baskets also exemplified their willingness to match the 76ers' resolve.
"At the end of the game you just want to win, and that's what we did," Martin said. "We have to learn to take the game a little bit more professional than we did, including myself, the first three quarters."
Kyle Lowry clinched the win by converting two three-point plays in the final two minutes. The first came at the 1:51 mark and lifted the Rockets to an 86-84 lead; the second with 59.2 seconds left for a four-point edge.
It came as little surprise that Lowry (13 points, eight rebounds, five assists) played so well against his hometown team. But the Rockets would not have made it to the final moments had Luis Scola not recorded his third double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds, had Dragic and Patrick Patterson not combined for 23 points off the bench.
Lowry and Martin delivered the late-game heroics, but the Rockets proved resilient even as they did their best to keep the 76ers in contention. When the moment of truth arrived they delivered, and given how cold last Friday night felt for McHale, this joy he shared was earned.
"It was a tough, physical game with a tough, physical team who likes to grind it out," Lowry said. "We pulled that victory out. That's a team that's going to play hard and be physical, and that's what they did down the stretch. I hit the floor a few times but it doesn't matter. We got the win and we're going into the (All-Star) break on a high note."
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