HOUSTON • With their season-long, six-game road trip mercifully coming to an end on Friday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers recognised the need for one determined push through the finish line, and they proved willing to deliver whatever effort was required to cap their long jaunt with vigour.
Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving and forward LeBron James shared the load carrying a sporadic offence but Cleveland relied on their defensive might to rebound from their first loss this month with a suffocating 91-77 victory over the Houston Rockets at Toyota Centre.
Cleveland (28-10) limited the Rockets to a National Basketball Association season-low point total while Houston (21-20) shot just 35.1 per cent (26 for 74) from the floor, including 6-for-25 shooting from behind the three-point arc.
James (19 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) and Irving (23 points) were sufficiently efficient, while forward Kevin Love chipped in a double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds). But Cleveland closed their road trip 5-1 by digging in defensively, especially against Rockets guard James Harden.
"We came in with the mindset that we had to defend, we had to cut the head off the snake, and that's Harden, and then just try to defend everyone else at the same time," James said. "And we did that."
Cleveland's on-fire defence forced Houston to make only 26 of 74 shots.
Houston guard James Harden was one of their worst performers, his 11 points are way off his season average of 28.
Harden scored just 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting. He missed all five of his three-point attempts and committed eight of the Rockets' 19 turnovers. He seemed resigned to his fate, taking just three shots in 18 second-half minutes as Cleveland sent multiple bodies his direction defensively.
But Harden was not alone in his struggles. Excluding point guard Patrick Beverley, every member of the Rockets' starting line-up missed more shots than they took.
Forward Terrence Jones and guard Marcus Thornton combined for 2-for-16 shooting in reserve. Houston's reserves combined for six points up till the third quarter.
"We stuck to the game plan," Irving said. "We didn't want James Harden to beat us. We wanted their other guys to beat us and we forced him to pass off to other guys and we trusted our weakside rotation."
The Rockets, whose five-game winning streak came to a halt, opened the game with 5-of-6 shooting while darting to a 13-4 lead.
But the Cavaliers answered with a trio of threes to cut the deficit to 16-13 before turning up the intensity defensively and getting a boost from veteran Anderson Varejao.
He finished with four points, two assists, two rebounds and a steal in just over seven minutes and his energy proved infectious.
The Rockets, meanwhile, closed the period missing 15 of their final 17 shots and surrendered the lead for good when Matthew Dellavedova beat the buzzer with a floating jump shot off a Harden turnover for a 23-21 lead entering the second.
The Cavaliers did not relinquish that advantage. Following a quiet six-minute stretch in the first quarter, Irving came alive with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting in the second.
He opened with a pull-up jumper before adding seven consecutive points to extend the lead to 36-28 with 6min 35sec left in the half.
Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said: "Their defence was active, it was tight, it was together. We got opportunities I thought but we didn't make shots. Shots that I thought were open and good shots for us. We didn't knock them down, and I think if we make some of those shots, it changes the way they have to defend you."