Rockets show off their grit and other intangibles in comeback win over Hawks

HOUSTON — The beauty of the long hallway that connects two opponents in the bowels of the Toyota Center lies in its functionality as an emotional litmus test. Often, it serves as performance markers in ways that in-game stats don’t do enough justice.

On Friday night, such was the case. The Atlanta Hawks, a team built to win now and primed for a deep playoff run, were left speechless as they entered the visitors’ locker room in an orderly fashion — shocked and stunned by a 128-122 loss to the rebuilding Rockets. At the other end, however, sheer jubilation was present.

Jalen Green, Houston’s leading scorer with 30 points and the man of the hour, who had picked up his sixth foul with 1:11 to go, was the first to emerge. “Aaaaaaargh!” he ecstatically shouted as he reached for the door. “God did!” yelled another teammate, an ode to DJ Khaled’s 13th studio album.

Coach Stephen Silas and his assistants congregated just outside of their locker room, box scores in hand, ready to immediately dissect the Rockets’ biggest win of the season. As poised and level-headed as they’re expected to be, it was hard to believe that there wasn’t a huge sigh of relief, internally and externally, especially given the circumstances in which the Rockets had emerged victorious.

The Hawks had everything going their way. Their backcourt, led by Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, was in the sort of offensive synergy that only champions ever get to experience. Young finished with 44 points to Murray’s 39, an unreal level of scoring support from a newly assembled duo. No other starter finished in double digits. Between them, 12 3-pointers were made, making the sort of momentum-shifting, backbreaking triples that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have grown accustomed to.

Atlanta was also in control of the emotional aspect of the game. The Rockets actually opened the game with the exact combination of unselfish play and ferocious transition offense that they had shown against the Hawks in the season opener, but they withstood the push, responded and then some.

Heavy rain was pouring down in downtown Houston, but the real storm was brewing within the arena. With 6:35 left in the third quarter, Houston trailed 90-74 and looked nearly lifeless. At this juncture of the season, 18 games in, there have already been a few iterations of this young team. There was the version that would fight valiantly but ultimately fall short. There was also the version that would capitulate, being undone by self-destruction.

Given how the game had unfolded, the latter was looking more and more likely. Silas said after the game that he had even noticed his team’s spirit and energy down early in the second half when Atlanta started to pull away and Houston fell back into its old, bad habits. But there was more to it than what the JumboTron displayed high above the court. Just 30 seconds earlier, Murray had drained a triple over the outstretched hands of Jabari Smith Jr. and taunted him afterward by tapping his head, a clear sign of disrespect by any competitive standard. Those who spend every day with Smith will attest to the rookie’s fiercely competitive nature and his strong sense of pride. It was only a matter of time before things escalated.

Technical fouls were assessed to Smith, Murray, Green and Young for their involvement in the brief altercation. But at that moment, the Rockets’ record didn’t matter, nor did their age or experience. They banded together like they hadn’t done all season. There was unison. Togetherness. Brotherhood. Fight.

“We’re not gonna take disrespect,” Green said. “Ever. No matter who it is. And we’re always going to have each other’s back. Those are my brothers. We need each other at the end of the day, and we’re gonna rock with each other at the end of the day.”

With Alperen Sengun unavailable and Bruno Fernando having just returned from injury, Silas went with Smith at center for most of the second half. Offensively, it was one thing, with Green and Porter able to consistently find gaps in the defense and kick out to Smith, who had no issue knocking down perimeter shots. Smith finished with 21 points and five made 3s, continuing an upward trend for the rookie. K.J. Martin also chipped in with 21 points with his usual bully ball, downhill force and smart cutting.

“We didn’t have the late turnovers we’ve had in the past,” Silas said. “That was one of the things we worked on during our four-day break — late-game situations and the stuff that we’re gonna run. There’s maturity that comes with every experience that we have. But to go through everything we went through, go down and fight back shows maturity. But also character from our guys.”

But it was on the defensive end in the fourth quarter that the Rockets were finally able to impose their will. With Smith anchoring the unit and able to switch multiple positions, Houston played with a force that quite frankly hadn’t been seen except in short bursts. The Rockets refused to yield an inch of space to Atlanta, forcing the Hawks into just 4-of-14 shooting in the final quarter (1-for-7 from 3) and forced five turnovers. Green was forced to watch the final minute from the sideline, but before he departed he made sure to leave his mark — on both ends of the floor.

“I know in that fourth quarter, they depended on me, Scoot and the five that’s out there,” Green said. “Whoever got the hot hand, we’re gonna keep feeding them. That’s something we haven’t done in fourth quarters. Not executing plays, turning the ball over. I think today we focused on the hot hand.”

“There always are, but usually they’re revealed after the fact, right,” Silas said about Friday as a pivotal moment for his team. “So we’ll see from here as far as our fight. Taking it on the chin from 83 from those two games but still staying with the game. Showing all the fight and character that we did. It could be one of those defining type games.”

The Rockets now sit at 4-14. It’s not the mark they might have expected at this stage after a strong training camp and preseason, but the NBA is unpredictable sometimes. This rebuild, as much as it involves wins and losses, is also about the intangibles. Grit. Poise. Spirit.

Houston got a strong all-around performance from its most important player in Green and another solid offensive contribution from its recent No. 3 draft pick. Those are huge checks on the rebuilding checklist. But the larger, more important themes were present Friday night. Before the game, I asked Silas if the combination of Young and Murray was a blueprint of sorts for what the Rockets wanted to achieve. And they are. But Houston’s unlikely win was another blueprint. The Rockets showed a commitment to Silas and his game plan down the stretch, and that should only benefit both parties this season and beyond. They might be young, but they refused to back down from anyone. Contender or pretender.

“We needed that win,” Silas said with a smile.

(Photo of Jalen Green dunking: Michael Wyke / Associated Press)

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