Jrue Holiday coming on strong _lowres

Associated Press photo by Bob Levey New Orleans Pelicans center Omer Asik, right, takes a hard hit to the face from Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard as he dunks the ball Sunday in Houston. Houston won 121-114.

HOUSTON — This was the Jrue Holiday the Pelicans were waiting for.

After missing 40 games because of a stress reaction, New Orleans’ best point guard returned to the floor in Friday’s win over Phoenix but made his first true impact Sunday night in a 121-114 loss to the Houston Rockets.

Just a week ago, Holiday was uncertain he would even return this season. Now, he could be one of the Pelicans’ two most critical cogs — alongside Anthony Davis — as they stare at a two-game stretch to determine their playoff fate.

In his first six-minute appearance of the night, Holiday darted around the floor as if the stress reaction in his lower right leg was a nonfactor, jumping passing lanes, driving toward the goal with ease and staying in front of the Rockets’ guards on defense. In that short spurt, he scored nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, snaring two rebounds and a steal.

Holiday re-entered in the final four minutes of the third quarter, with the Pelicans leading 70-65 and continued his torrid scoring. Playing with a struggling bench unit, Holiday still managed to connect on three of his five attempts, including a pair of 3-pointers that kept New Orleans from getting run out of the building.

“I felt more comfortable,” Holiday said. “I think definitely shooting, especially compared to last game, which was more about energy and adrenaline. I just give my all no matter what.

“Obviously I would like to play longer and help out my team, but I have to do what’s best my leg and I think in my time out there, I’m doing what’s best for my team.”

Despite his bounce on the floor, Pelicans’ medical staff is still limiting Holiday to just 15 minutes per night, although coach Monty Williams said he’s was tempted to play him more. In fact, Williams said he may “up the ante” and increase his minutes for Monday’s contest at Minnesota depending on how Holiday feels before the game.

Holiday said the minutes restriction is a back-and-forth discussion with the medical staff who relies on his judgement and pain description for guidance.

“They have to save me from me,” Holiday said. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t tell them. I would just tell them I was good the whole time until I could barely walk anymore. So they kind of save me from myself.”

Poor interior defense

What Holiday couldn’t help, however, was the Pelicans’ porous protection of the lane area in the second half.

In the first 14 minutes alone, the Rockets notched 22 points in the lane as Houston bombarded the defense from the inside on fast breaks, drives and putbacks.

It helped overcome a relatively slow shooting night from the perimeter — Houston connected on just 9-of-24 from 3-point range — and shot 59.5 percent from the field in the second half.

James Harden and Dwight Howard did most of the damage, combining for 29 points in the half, as Houston turned a halftime deficit into a double-digit lead by the midway point of the fourth quarter.

“They were just driving the ball and their pick and roll with Harden, we didn’t do a good job,” Williams said. “Until the end of the third quarter, and beginning of the fourth quarter we were great, after that a couple of our guys just didn’t perform as well in their pick and roll coverages.”

Williams also pointed to the lack of interior defense for the reason New Orleans’ scoring fell off, because it allowed Houston to continually play with a set defense, helping limit the Pelicans to zero fast break points.

“They’re a team of runs and they score in a lot of different ways,” reserve forward Ryan Anderson said. “They had a huge run, and it came at the right time for them.”

Hack-a-Rocket

In his five years as Pelicans coach, Williams has rarely employed the strategy to intentionally foul the opposition with the idea of getting a bad free throw shooter to the line.

But when times got desperate Sunday night, he used it.

After intentionally fouling Joey Dorsey once at the end of the first quarter (and he made both attempts), Williams chose not to foul off the ball again until the game’s final six minutes, when the Rockets’ lead ballooned to more than 10.

The strategy failed to pay dividends as Josh Smith and Dwight Howard connected on more than enough free throws to keep the Rockets safely ahead as the minutes ticket away until the two-minute mark, when hacking is forbidden.

“It didn’t work out as well as we wanted to,” Williams said. “But we did what we wanted to.”

Pelican scoops

Houston outscored New Orleans 21-0 on fast breaks. It was the first time the Rockets didn’t allow a fast break point all season ... The Rockets converted 19 more free throws on 26 more attempts, highlighted by making nine more free throws on eight more attempts in the first quarter ... Starting guards Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon combined to make just 10-of-27 shots and 12 assists.