(The Sports Xchange) - Reunited with the franchise with which he enjoyed his most successful postseason run in recent memory, forward Josh Smith contributed to the Rockets many of the things they sorely missed after he surprisingly opted to sign with the Clippers during the offseason.
Forward Trevor Ariza sank two free throws with 4.3 seconds left, and with Smith showcasing his versatility, the Houston Rockets held on for a 102-98 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night at Toyota Center.
Ariza finished with 19 points and matched his season high with five 3-pointers while guard James Harden added a game-high 30 points plus eight assists. And despite missing 9 of 10 shots Smith made his mark, totaling six assists, five rebounds, three blocks and two steals in 21 minutes after arriving at the arena less than two hours before tipoff.
"I'm definitely a little rusty but it felt natural out there," Smith said. "It felt natural being around my teammates and being able to play in the same system.
"I felt good, I felt comfortable out there. I made mistakes but with timing those will be corrected."
Smith wasn't alone in providing the Rockets (23-22) bench production. Forward Terrence Jones (14 points, eight rebounds, four blocks) and guards Ty Lawson (11 points) and Marcus Thornton (10) helped Houston reserves outpace the Bucks' four-man bench unit 37-16.
Houston hit 15 of 44 3-pointers and Smith proved integral in creating open shots with his pinpoint passing. With the Rockets hamstrung by frontcourt injuries, notably center Dwight Howard and forward/center Donatas Motiejunas, Smith fills a void. But even when healthy the Rockets lacked the skillful passing Smith provides as a big in their offense.
"It changes everything," Harden said of having Smith back. "The cuts are available. Better shots, open shots, easier shots, similar to last year."
Milwaukee, league leaders in points in the paint, bludgeoned Houston inside 58-42. Center Greg Monroe had 21 points and nine boards while forward Giannis Antetokounmpo added 18 points, but aside from guard Khris Middleton, who scored 21 and hit his lone 3 with 6.9 seconds left to cut the deficit to 100-98, the Bucks did damage on the interior. They hit 3 of 14 treys and their starting forwards did not attempt a 3-pointer.
The Bucks' early dominance in the paint -- they outscored Houston 20-10 there in the first quarter -- came as no surprise, nor was the scoring Middleton provided late in the opening period. He closed the first with nine points to help shave an 11-point deficit to 31-28 entering the second, and when reserve guard Rashad Vaughn drilled a 3 with 10:49 left in the first half, the Bucks (19-26) grabbed their first lead at 33-31.
Nine seconds later, the Rockets pulled even, with swingman Corey Brewer igniting a 13-0 run with a twisting layup. That burst was the first of several for Houston, which repeatedly answered Bucks rallies with runs of their own. Harden keyed the surge in the second by contributing in transition, at the free-throw line, and behind the arc.
"We really lost guys at the free-throw line and I think they got a lot of open 3s in transition," Monroe said. "They got us in rotations and also a lot of second-chance points (20)."
When the Bucks blitzed Houston with a 15-4 run that opened the third and sliced the deficit to 61-60, the Rockets responded. Ariza buried consecutive 3s to rebuild the lead to 71-64 before Houston scored 10 consecutive points bridging the third and fourth periods, opening its largest lead at 81-66 when Smith converted a layup with 11:48 to play.
"They shot a lot of 3s and made a few that really helped them stretch out their lead," Bucks forward Jabari Parker said. "We kept playing from behind and were playing catch-up, and that really hurt us."
Editing by Peter Rutherford