Pat Sullivan, Associated Press
Boxscore: Houston 110, Utah 108
HOUSTON — A hint of rustiness would have been acceptable from forward Paul Millsap. After all, he had just missed the team's last five games with patellar tendinitis in his left knee.
But in the first half against Houston Sunday night, the Jazz played like they had endured a long layoff instead. Plagued by nine missed free throws and subpar perimeter defense, Utah lost 110-108 to Houston at the Toyota Center and ultimately wasted Millsap's herculean 35-point effort.
As a result of the loss, the Rockets (37-34) leapfrogged the Jazz (36-34) for ninth place in the Western Conference standings and inched even closer to claiming the elusive eighth and final playoff spot.
"They made shots," Jazz coach Ty Corbin said. "We came out a few times with our hands down and they came across the pick-and-roll and stepped and just stepped in some good rhythm shots."
Despite Houston's barrage of buckets, Millsap nearly managed to re-enact his miracle in Miami – where he nailed three 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds of regulation – in the fourth quarter.
Down 100-93 with just 50 seconds remaining, Millsap stepped behind the arc and drilled two consecutive 3-pointers, quickly trimming Houston's lead to 102-99 and erasing memories of his nagging knee injury.
"It felt pretty good," said Millsap, who was sporting a brace on the knee. "I got out there and once I started running I couldn't really feel (any pain). I didn't really notice the brace on it, so when I got out there I just got out and played."
But Kyle Lowry was just as impressive for the Rockets. The point guard drained clutch free throws to seal the victory and finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists en route to recording his first-career triple-double.
"He's tremendous," Corbin said. "He's a young guy who has continued to get better every year. His hard work is starting to show now and he's doing a great job for these guys after they went through some adversity in trades. He's a tough player."
Coupled alongside Kevin Martin, who carried the Rockets with 34 points, the duo proved to be a nightmare for Utah. They torched the Jazz's defense in the first half, combining to shoot 5-of-9 from downtown and score 36 points to take a 55-47 lead at halftime.
Through it all, though, the Jazz also committed their fair share of self-inflicted wounds.
Within the opening minutes of the game, both Devin Harris and Andrei Kirilenko misfired on passes by throwing the ball out of bounds – with no one around. The errors were two of Utah's nine first-half turnovers that resulted in an early 12-point deficit.
"We made a lot of mistakes and still had a chance to win," Jefferson said. "You have to give (Houston center) Chuck Hayes credit. He always plays me well and I couldn't help my team as much as I wanted to."
Although Jefferson downplayed his impact, he still spearheaded Utah's second-half rally on offense and finished with 17 points and 19 rebounds to post his 30th double-double of the season.
Utah, however, mounted that comeback thanks in large part to a stifling defense on the perimeter. With Kirilenko pinned on Martin, the Houston guard struggled to maintain his mastery from three-point range and went 0-for-2 in the second half.
"It's a tough loss especially when you lose by two points, just a matter of one shot," Kirilenko said. "We did a pretty good job tonight, but pretty good wasn't good enough."
The Jazz's loss was also tougher to swallow, considering the Rockets soared past them primarily without the services of frontcourt starters Chase Budinger and Luis Scola.
Budinger left the game in the second quarter after suffering a sprained left ankle in a collision with Millsap, while Scola – who also returned after five games with a back injury – was hindered by foul trouble all night.
"It's far from over," Millsap said of covering ground for the playoffs. "We're still in this thing and have a long ways to go. You can tell everyone wants to do it and as long as we continue to do that, we'll be all right.
"As long as we have that attitude, we'll continue to be in the games."
Rockets 110, Jazz 108
Game 70: Sunday in Houston: A slow start Jazz as never overcome the 11-point first-quarter deficit .
Jazz at Grizzlies
Monday, 6 P.M.
Memphis is currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. ... The Jazz lead the season series 2-1 over the Grizzlies, so a win would also give the Jazz a tiebreaker. ... Big man Al Jefferson has been Utah's leading scorer in 10 of the team's last 12 games. ... The Jazz are 8-9 in the second night of back-to-back games.
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