HOUSTON — Just as the biggest blowout in a season of big blowouts was mercifully ending, the Utah Jazz finally pushed back at the Houston Rockets.
At least seldom-used reserve guard John Lucas III did.
With five seconds left in the Jazz’s latest debacle, a 124-86 drubbing, Lucas snuck up on Isaiah Canaan as the Rockets guard tried to dribble the game out, stole the ball, headed toward the Utah basket, veered toward the bench and flipped the ball to Rudy Gobert in the lane.
As Gobert missed a meaningless layup at the horn, you would’ve thought the boxing bell had been dinged.
Houston forward Francisco Garcia gave Lucas’ side a brushing blow with his elbow. The Jazz guard responded by shoving Garcia with both hands and the players then squared off with fists up, ready for an impromptu Toyota Center tussle.
It was the most fight the Jazz showed all night.
It was also a bizarre, emotion-filled way to end a lopsided loss for a spiraling Jazz team that has dropped five consecutive games and 10 of 11.
"I just feel like built-up frustration, maybe for the whole year,” Lucas said. “It just triggered something and it triggered me to do what I had to do."
After Jazz assistant Sidney Lowe stepped between his player, Francisco and their clinched fists, the 31-year-old Lucas headed to the locker room. While exiting the court, Lucas, a Houston native, barked out something about “my city” in Garcia’s direction.
Lucas then hit the showers where the rushing water helped cool him off.
Sure, he was upset that the Rockets were up by about 40 points and were “showing off” by shooting a couple of 3-pointers and a long jumper (all Canaan) in the final 1:30. But a calmer Lucas, who has one of the most cheerful and bubbly personalities on the team, admitted that “it was messed up on my part” to steal the ball while an opponent was dribbling out the clock.
“There’s some stuff that you do and that you don’t do,” he said, “and maybe that was one of the things that you don’t do.”
As for his brouhaha with 6-foot-7 Garcia, the 5-foot-10 Lucas wishes it wouldn’t have happened. But he also didn’t like getting smacked in the side.
“When he came in, I threw the ball out and I was walking off and he threw a nice little ‘bow in my ribs,” Lucas said. “I was always taught if somebody hits you, you can go right back at them. I don’t back away from nobody.“
If the Jazz had showed that attitude — in a non-fighting fighting kind of way — this game wouldn’t have been nearly as much of a debacle.
Despite playing without All-Star center Dwight Howard because of a mild ankle strain, the Rockets had their way everywhere on the court with the Jazz as Utah gave up at least 122 points for the second straight night to a Western Conference contender.
Forward Terrence Jones scored 30, six Houston players had at least 12 points, and the Rockets drained 13 of 25 3-pointers and shot 58.2 percent while stretching their lead to as many as 41 points.
Meanwhile, the Jazz only had four players score in double digits and shot just 41 percent. Utah was so miserable during a 17-point fourth quarter, Rockets officials almost had to pinch fans in the sold-out crowd to wake them up, not because they weren’t wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day.
“Tonight, we just couldn’t get it going it,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “It was like we were running in mud and couldn’t get ourselves out of it.”
“I don’t know if it was a lack of effort or more of a lack of execution,” Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward said. “We didn’t take anything away from them. They got anything they wanted. They got dunks, kick-out 3s, pull-ups in the mid-range.”
While most players responded to the embarrassing beatdown with apathy — in their play and composure — Lucas let his season-long frustrations boil to the surface of his fingertips.
“I hate losing. I hate it with a passion,” Lucas said. “Night in, night out, you’ve got to play with passion. I take pride in this game. I play with my heart on my sleeve.”
Corbin spoke to a referee after the game, and he’s not sure if the NBA will step in with a punishment for Lucas and Garcia. The Jazz coach, frustrated about his team’s defensive rotations and man-to-man defense (or lack thereof), admitted he would have preferred if Lucas had just let the clock run out.
“Yeah, but, you know what, the clock is still running, you’ve got a right to play,” he said. “It happens, so we’ll move on.”
Lucas was expecting to hear about the fracas from his dad, John Lucas II, who was in the stands for this game.
“As a I look back on it, I wish none of that would’ve happened. It was a great game. The Rockets played great team basketball. They played a hell of a game, excuse my language,” Lucas said.
“It’s messed up that it ended like that. It was a good game by them. From one through all their guys, they all played good.”
The Rockets did not provide a comment about the incident or from Garcia in their postgame quotes.
Houston did, however, snap its season-high three-game losing streak in impressive fashion.
"Losing three in a row, we definitely didn't want to make it four," forward Chandler Parsons said. "We are playing for something this year."
The Jazz aren't.
And it's starting to show.