HOUSTON -- While it qualifies as a small sample size, what the Houston Rockets had hoped would spring from their longest break in the schedule has manifested: a renewed commitment to performing on the defensive end of the court.
With their 107-95 win in Charlotte over the Hornets on Thursday night, the Rockets (39-17) improved to 16-0 when they hold an opponent under 100 points. And while Houston, which will carry a three-game winning streak into Saturday when it hosts the Phoenix Suns (17-37) at Toyota Center, surrendered 104 points in a home win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night, its defensive effort for lengthy stretches was impressive and set the tone for the vigor in Charlotte.
"Our energy on defense, getting back in transition and coming up with steals ... against a good defensive team on the road that's what you need a lot of times," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said of the 27 points off 22 Charlotte turnovers.
"Our defense was good; we've just got to keep it there. Hopefully with the schedule the way it is we'll be able to."
The Rockets had three days off prior to their victory over the Magic and have just one game next week (hosting the red-hot Miami Heat on Wednesday) before the entire league goes on hiatus for the All-Star break. After leading the NBA in games played for most of the season Houston will now watch as others catch up.
And, after scuffling through a 5-13 stretch, the Rockets appear hopeful that their defensive recovery is a precursor to a strong closing run, one started by their modest span of victories over the Chicago Bulls, Magic and Hornets.
"That was our stretch," Rockets forward Ryan Anderson said of the skid. "Hopefully we can keep building forward and learn from our mistakes and just continue the flow of what we're doing. We're playing at a high level and it's fun."
Despite playing with a frontcourt depleted by suspension (Alex Len) and injury (Tyson Chandler), the Suns breezed past the Bulls 115-97 in Phoenix on Friday night. Alan Williams filled the void up front with 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots while the starting backcourt of Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe combined for 50 points (on 19 of 38 shooting), eight rebounds and 12 assists.
"It's been a tough stretch for us, but at the same time we've got to fight through whatever we have going on," Bledsoe said. "Everybody around this time is a little fatigued going into the All-Star break but we've got to head into the All-Star break feeling good. I don't want to be losing going into this All-Star break."
The Suns had lost eight of nine games before dismantling the Bulls, and that one victory came via a Booker buzzer beater at Sacramento on Feb. 3. Phoenix entered the weekend ranked 24th in offensive rating and 28th in defensive rating, and has yet to string together more than two consecutive victories.
"It hasn't been an easy season but we understand where we started and the journey and the realities of the season," Suns coach Earl Watson said. "With our young, feisty roster we continue to push forward."