By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
HOUSTON — Kevin McHale hadn’t planned on using Dwight Howard and Pat Beverley for long and so late.
So much for plans.
With the Rockets knocked onto the ropes by the undermanned Pelicans and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs in danger of slipping away, Howard and Beverley made their returns count.
In the final two minutes, Beverley sandwiched a pair of 3-point bombs around a huge blocked shot by Howard that sparked the comeback for a 111-104 win over the Pelicans.
More than just a win, it was a much-needed tourniquet for a Rockets team that had been losing games, confidence and a sense of purpose.
Howard (ankle) and Beverley (knee) both were coming off injuries that had forced them to miss eight straight games and the past two weeks while the Rockets defense went AWOL. While the pair of starters were sidelined, Houston had limped to a 3-5 record and surrendered an average of 115.9 points a game.
“We’re not playing hard,” said McHale. “We’re not getting the 50-50 balls. We’re not playing every possession. We’re playing selectively.”
Though the Rockets still dug themselves an alarming 15-point hole and had to close fast to overtake a Pelicans’ team that was playing without its top seven scorers, the fact that Howard and Beverley were back on the court with the start of the playoffs just a week off was the biggest takeaway.
The Rockets’ magic number to clinch the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference is just one and they will likely open the first round against the Trail Blazers.
Howard played 29 minutes, shot 5-for-8 for 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked two shots.
“I think the first quarter I needed an oxygen mask,” he said. “I was pretty tired. But I just kept playing, kept trying to get a rhythm. First games are always tough to come back. But I think Pat had an excellent game. He started hitting shots late in the game. At the beginning of the game he was rushing a lot of his 3s. In the second half, he calmed down and was knocking them down. I was happy to see him back and being aggressive and the knee held up for him and that was a great thing.
“It’s important that we come out better and we hold teams on the defensive end. We’ve got to do a better job on the pick and roll. With me and Pat coming back, we’ve got to get our rhythm going, especially on defense. Everything will come together. We’ve got to continue to be patient with our bodies. We’ll be fine.”
Beverley finished with 20 points, hitting 4-for-8 from behind the arc, in 33 minutes and said his sprained right knee was not a problem.
“I was kinda hesitant on it first half,” he said. “I hadn’t really played in a game situation. But I got warmed up and it felt good.
“I was in a groove. I asked coach not to take me out. He kept me and Dwight in a little bit longer than we expected. But we needed this win.
“No swelling at all. I feel good, man. All praise to God. I heal unbelievably fast for some odd reason. It’s not a bad thing.”
It’s also not bad that Howard and Beverley have two more regular-season games to work on their timing and rhythm before the playoffs begin and the Rockets have a week to shore up the holes in that defense.
“Taking two starters out for the last two weeks, you’re switching everything around. It’s tough,” Beverley said. “We’re kinda of rusty this game, but we were able to chip that rust off and get that win. We’re gonna be all right.”