HOUSTON — If the Hawks were tired, the Rockets were exhausted.
At least that’s the way it was supposed to work.
The Hawks were playing their fourth game in five nights, but the Rockets were playing on the third consecutive night, an oddity of the lockout-shortened season. Plus, the Rockets had their travel disrupted when returning from Memphis early Saturday morning.
Yet the Rockets had more zip while overwhelming the Hawks with their energy, speed and sharpness for a 95-84 victory Saturday night. The Hawks never led while losing for the first time this season.
“I knew they were going to play hard,” Hawks guard Jeff Teague said. “They play at a tempo where every night they are going to get up and down. That’s just how they play. They take quick shots, and they have guys that can score.”
For the first time in four games, the Hawks faced a team deep with skilled offensive players, and their defense wasn’t up to the challenge. Houston dizzied the Hawks with a relentless attack at the basket for scores and kick-outs for 3-pointers.
Houston point guard Kyle Lowry tied his career with 18 assists, two more than the Hawks’ team total, and Jordan Hill set a career high with 15 rebounds. Kevin Martin (27 points) made six 3-pointers, Chase Budinger (17 points) made three and Luis Scola (21 points) scored from everywhere.
The Rockets played fast, and the Hawks couldn’t keep up.
“They pushed the tempo on us, and we didn’t seem to have any defensive energy,” Hawks swingman Tracy McGrady said. “We let Kyle Lowry push the ball up and find shooters.”
Houston’s fast tempo started immediately and each time Atlanta tried to respond after that, the Rockets answered with stops and scores. The Rockets raced to a 20-9 lead and were up 76-62 in the fourth quarter when McGrady, a former Rockets All-Star, helped lead the Hawks’ rally.
McGrady’s dunk trimmed Houston’s lead to 79-73 with 5:20 to play. Hawks forward Josh Smith corralled Scola’s miss, but Scola knocked the ball loose to Jordan Hill, who scored on a layup.
Joe Johnson’s offensive foul led to Budinger’s 3-pointer for an 84-73 Houston lead. The Hawks couldn’t cut the lead to less than seven from there.
The Hawks play at defending Eastern Conference champion Miami on Monday and at East runner-up Chicago on Tuesday.
“It’s going to be a measuring stick,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said.
To win either of those games, the Hawks likely will have to play with more focus than they did against Houston. Two plays in the second half illustrated their troubles.
Teague led a fast break and looked to have a clear path to the basket through the lane. Instead he passed to Johnson on the baseline away from the basket, and Johnson gave it to Marvin Williams, who was called for a three-second violation.
Later, Houston’s Lowry launched a 3-point attempt that missed the basket. The Hawks, thinking it was a shot-clock violation, started back up the court as Scola scored an uncontested layup.
“They played at a higher level than we did,” Drew said. “I told the guys that’s totally unacceptable.”
There was no evidence of tired legs or minds for the Rockets early. They ran to a 20-9 lead as Scola scored at the basket, and Lowry directed the offense.
Hawks problems with Houston’s dribble penetration prompted Drew to use a zone alignment in the second quarter. That strategy, plus foul trouble for Scola, helped the Hawks pull within 38-33 on Johnson’s 3-pointer.
But Martin answered with a 3-pointer, Budinger made another and Houston took a 51-44 lead into halftime.