HOUSTON - Following three successive meandering starts, the Houston Rockets found the motivation to began the first quarter with a flourish.
For the first time during their crucial seven-game homestand, the Rockets opened a contest with vigor, and they rode that early burst to a 100-93 victory over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.
After sluggish efforts necessitated sustained runs of excellence against the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves, and also undermined a stalled comeback in a 30-point loss to the Golden State Warriors, the Rockets rode interior defense to an early lead they did not relinquish.
The win enabled Houston (37-31) to extend its lead over Utah (34-34) to three games in the three-way race (including the Los Angeles Lakers) for seventh and eighth place in the Western Conference playoff picture.
"Coach (Kevin McHale) went over the mathematics and the importance of this game before we went out there, and we understood the tiebreaker (Houston won the season series 3-1), we understood what's at stake with the playoffs and the seeding," Rockets forward Chandler Parsons said. "This was a huge game to get for us going forward.
"We set the tone early instead of laying back on our heels and letting them come at us. We really came out and were the aggressor."
Utah mustered only eight field goals in the first quarter, then shot just 6-for-16 in the second as the Rockets extended their eight-point lead at the close of the opening period to 52-33 by the intermission. That point total represented a season low for a Rockets opponent in the first half.
Rockets guard James Harden finished with 29 points, 20 coming in the first half on just eight shot attempts. His backcourt mate, Jeremy Lin, added 24 points, including 10 in the third quarter on 3-for-3 shooting.
"I thought when we needed some hoops Jeremy really attacked the rim well," McHale said. "James got fouled a lot; he got to the line 18 times. We played really well in stretches in that game.
"Overall, from an energy standpoint, I thought out start was tremendous. I thought we got off to a good start. I thought we had good energy. I thought we had a good defensive rhythm."
The Jazz trailed by as many as 26 before cutting the deficit to five points late in the fourth quarter. Harden knocked down two free throws with 1:15 left to rebuild the lead to 95-88, and then he stripped Jazz center Al Jefferson with 53.9 seconds to play to snuff a critical Utah possession.
Gordon Hayward paced the Jazz with a season-high 27 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter, and pulled down eight rebounds. Jefferson posted 18 points and 11 boards, while Paul Millsap added 16 points.
"We're going to make our run, but we just can't give up those five-to-10-minute pushes where they gain 20 to 25 points on us," Hayward said. "That's just not acceptable."
Excluding Millsap, the Jazz struggled in the interior before the break. Jefferson missed five of his seven shots in the first half as Utah produced just 16 points in the paint despite its decided size advantage up front.
The Jazz improved on the interior in the second half, as the Rockets netted just a 46-44 edge on points in the paint. But the Rockets led from start to finish, building a substantial enough lead to keep the Jazz at bay.
"We're still in the fight. We're still alive," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "We've slid and this is a tough loss for us, but we're still in the fight and we'll approach every game trying to contain and compete to win the ball game, and we'll see where that goes."
NOTES: With the core of last season's playoff participants serving as the foundation for his current roster, Corbin remains confident that Utah can right its ship for the stretch run: a 14-game sprint that will feature a dogfight with the Rockets and Lakers for the last two Western Conference playoff spots. "As much experience as you get in those situations it makes you a little more comfortable in them," said Corbin, whose team is 3-10 since the trade deadline. "This group of guys has been resilient all year. We have not played our best basketball of late, but we're looking forward to a big finish." ... For a team that has struggled of late with slow starts, the Rockets need only to recall their previous meeting with the Jazz to grasp the benefits of early energy. Houston outscored Utah 57-39 in the first half of their 125-80 road win on Jan. 28, a victory that included Houston posting a 141.5 offensive rating and 61.8 effective field-goal percentage. "We talked about what we need to do: push the ball and attack, don't wait, don't play slow and don't let their defense get set," McHale said. "Hopefully we can replicate some of that."