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Houston • It's a well-worn locker room slogan: "next man up." When one player gets hurt, another teammate is there waiting to fill his role on the basketball court.
But in the case of the injury plagued Utah Jazz, "next man down" might be more fitting.
On the night center Rudy Gobert gave the Jazz cause to celebrate with his return from a monthlong absence due to a knee injury, the shorthanded Jazz watched shooting guard Rodney Hood helped off the court with an ankle injury in a 103-94 loss to the Rockets.
"It's definitely depleting," said Jazz forward Gordon Hayward, who scored a team-high 15 points in a second loss to Houston this week. "It's going to be tough on us mentally more than anything. … We're going to try to stick together and push through this. It's been a tough period for us."
Houston's All-Star guard James Harden scored 33 points Thursday after dropping 30 in Monday's win over the Jazz in Salt Lake City. These are tough losses because the Rockets (18-19) and the Jazz (15-20) find themselves relatively close together at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture at the moment.
But if the Jazz want to see their season extend beyond mid-April, getting healthy remains the most important thing.
So Gobert, of course, was a 7-foot bright spot Thursday for a Jazz team coming off a 25-point beating the night before in San Antonio. Utah's 7-foot defensive anchor entered the game early in the first quarter and needed less than a minute to tip in his first bucket. He ran the floor well. He fought for rebounds. And after a big dunk in the second half, he stared down his own teammates with a kind of emotion the Jazz have missed at times in his absence.
"I felt great," he said after playing his first game since spraining his MCL on Dec. 2. "I tried not to think about the knee, and I felt great running up and down and had a little bit of contact and it felt good."
Gobert's minutes were limited to a five-minute burst in the first quarter and 10 minutes in the second half. He finished the game with six points and three rebounds.
"It was good to see him out there," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "He plays with emotion, so it was good to see him back even though it was for a short period of time."
Gobert missed 18 games with the injury and his return will undoubtedly buoy a Jazz team in need of some hope especially if Hood's injury proves to be anything serious.
The Jazz led by four points with just over three minutes gone in the second half when Hood took a 3-pointer over Houston's James Harden and appeared to roll his right ankle on the landing. Hood, who had scored 10 points at the time, lay on the ground in a corner of the court as Harden raced off to a fast break bucket. When the Jazz were able to call timeout, their shooting guard had to be helped back to the locker room by trainers from each team.
The Jazz were calling the injury a "sore right ankle," though it was serious enough to keep Hood out the rest of the game. He'll be evaluated when the team returns to Salt Lake City and it remains to be seen how seriously he was hurt and whether he'll join Derrick Favors (back), Danté Exum (ACL) and Alec Burks (ankle) on the team's injury report.
On Monday night at home, the Jazz surrendered a 15-point lead in a loss to Houston. This time around, the Jazz found themselves down by 10 midway through the fourth quarter before managing to trim the lead to four with two minutes left.
"I thought it was a hell of an effort by us to compete through all the circumstances," Hayward said. "Rodney going down, losing another key guy, we're still battling. We're still in the game at the end."
Five Jazzmen scored in double figures, with Trevor Booker (12), Chris Johnson (11) and Trey Burke (10) providing some punch off the bench.
Hood's injury left the Jazz without one of their primary scoring threats and another defender to battle with Harden. Houston shot 52 percent and swiped 11 steals, overwhelming the Jazz for stretches in the second half, especially after Hood left the game.
Afterward, the opposition took note.
"Utah is a very tough team and they just don't have the skill position players right now," said Rockets guard Jason Terry, who finished with 12 points and two assists. "They're young, but the way they play offensively, it's textbook basketball."
The question now is when will those skill positions be filled?
"It's tough," Burke said. "One guy comes back and another guy goes down. Now someone else is going to have to step up. Depending on what the injury is like, I don't know the details, but it's tough. We already have a few guys down. Being a young team we have to learn from it and guys have to step up."
R Rudy Gobert scores 6 points and grabs three rebounds in his first action since his Dec. 2 knee injury.
• Rodney Hood scores 10 points before leaving the game in the third quarter with an ankle injury.
• Rockets guard James Harden scores 33 points after dropping 30 in a win over the Jazz on Monday.