The Rockets had waited for nearly seven weeks for this day, but it was not to ring in the New Year or ring up a win against a Nuggets team that had shut them down in November.
Through weeks of injuries that diminished them and the flu that had weakened them, they had careened from scintillating wins to disheartening losses, never settling into a consistent level between their potential and struggles.
Finally, they were whole — or as complete as they are going to get — again. For the first time since Nov. 11, the Rockets on Tuesday had their full rotation in place and marked the occasion with an impressive, 130-104, thrashing of the Nuggets who had limited them to 95 points back when the Rockets were shorthanded and struggling.
With that, there was a sense of what they could be, if they ever find the consistency that even Tuesday remained elusive.
“We have to find a way — it will get there …. to sustain it for four quarters,” James Harden said. “Once we get that, it’s going to be pretty tough to beat us.”
Few teams were as equipped as the Nuggets to test that if only because they were the team that was first to send halfcourt traps to Harden for a full game, beginning the trend that filled the past five weeks.
The Rockets took that apart in Tuesday’s first half with execution that piled up 69 first-half points on the way to a 17-point lead.
Even after a steep and familiar third-quarter slide that reduced the Rockets’ lead to three, they took off again in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Nuggets, 38-15, as the Rockets so easily handled the traps on Harden, the Nuggets abandoned them.
“We’ve seen it a thousand times at every game,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Guys making some shots, getting more comfortable with it. Russell (Westbrook) was really good.
“It shouldn’t work in theory if you just double him, and then it’s Russell four-on-three. We should score every time. I think they’re getting better at it. We’re not surprised by it. We don’t rush. You see something that’s kind of odd — now, it’s not odd. So, we should be able to handle it.”
When they did, the Rockets looked more complete. While Harden had 35 points on 10 of 17 shooting, extending his streak of games making at least 50 percent of his shots to a career-high six games, and Westbrook added 28, the Rockets had more weapons.
Eric Gordon, in his second game back from knee surgery, made 4 of 7 shots and 3 of his 5 3-pointers. Clint Capela, back after missing two games (and struggling badly through two others) with a bruised heel, had 16 points with 10 rebounds. Second-year center Isaiah Hartenstein solidified his place in the rotation, getting his first career double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds in just 18 minutes.
Most conspicuously, the Rockets handled the defense that had given them so much trouble.
“We’re just more prepared,” Harden said of defeating the traps. “We’ve seen that so many times now.
“It feels really good. It showed tonight.”
The Rockets slumped along the way, still stumbling with maddening inconsistency. They allowed 21 points off turnovers or second shots in the third quarter when they did not make enough 3s — sinking 1 of 8 — to protect their lead.
“We have that tendency to let people back in,” D’Antoni said. “If you want to go deep in the playoffs, you better develop some habits that are going to carry you. In the playoffs, you can’t just turn it on.”
The Rockets, however, did just that on Tuesday, scoring the first 12 points of the fourth quarter on the way to a 19-3 romp to blow the game open with offensive execution allowing them to get good shots all night.
“I thought we did a good job throughout the game,” Westbrook said. “We did a good job of making the right plays. The ball found the right person. We played at a high pace. It was very difficult to stop.”
With that, the Rockets had a sense of what they could be as they finally begin putting the pieces together.
“We got a really good team, a really good team,” forward P.J. Tucker said. “We still haven’t figured it out yet because we haven’t had everybody. Eric back, Isaiah being able to step up now — everybody is starting to feel their roles, what they’re able to do.”