Have the Houston Rockets really progressed this far?
It’s not like the Sacramento Kings have changed that much. They’re the same team that humiliated the Rockets twice earlier this season. Sacramento is a young, athletic team, full of players who could be better than they are if they could just calm down, and led by one of the few centers in Demarcus Cousins who can challenge Dwight for the title of best center. They did trade Marcus Thornton to the Nets at the trade deadline, but surely that’s not the difference between Sacramento’s earlier wins and this trouncing by the Rockets tonight?
But no, it’s not that the Kings have somehow gotten much worse. It is that the Houston Rockets have really developed so much over this season to become a consistent team that can hang with anyone on any given night and beat the teams that they are supposed to beat. As they sit in the 3rd seed once again, waiting for one of the biggest games of the season tomorrow against the Clippers, tonight’s win should give them plenty of confidence.
Harden was just incredible. Bill Worrell and Matt Bullard commented at one point that it was like Harden was on fast-forward while the Kings were on play, and it certainly seemed an apt analogy. The 43 points on 20 shots, 3 short of his career high and which he would have grabbed had he not sat out the 4th quarter due to the blowout, is not all that there was to it. Harden had 22 points in the 1st quarter, 17 points in a row in the 1st, and on top of it played excellent defense. We’ve seen over the past few games how Harden has successfully defended bigger guys in the post due to his great strength, recently against Golden State as Kevin McHale had Harden defend David Lee. Tonight, Harden did the same against Rudy Gay, and he also grabbed 3 steals. On top of the fact that Harden’s defense has improved lately, his 3 point shooting has slowly climbed back to its normal levels. Harden only shot around 31% from long range in 2013, but he has hit over 41% over the month of February.
Besides Harden, Dwight Howard also had a great game. There was a major injury scare at the beginning of the game when Howard bumped knees with Cousins and fell onto the floor in the middle of the first quarter. Howard limped off towards the locker room and was out for quite some time, but eventually came back and seemed none the worse for wear. Sacramento was determined to keep Demarcus Cousins out of foul trouble, and thus utterly refused to have Cousins guard Howard at all, meaning that inferior big men like Jason Thompson, Aaron Gray, and Reggie Evans guarded him instead. It worked badly for the Kings as Howard overpowered them to finish with 20 points and 11 boards. To add insult to injury, Sacramento’s strategy didn’t even keep Cousins out of foul trouble, as he picked up 5 fouls in just 20 minutes of play and was then ejected midway through the third for arguing with the referees. Sacramento had made a run during the second quarter and had cut Houston’s lead from 31 to just 15 at the start of the third – but Houston made their own run, and with Cousins gone, the Kings just didn’t have the offensive firepower to make up for their huge deficit.
One final surprising note. When the Brooks-Hamilton trade was announced less than a week ago, I did not expect Jordan Hamilton to receive any real playing time for quite some time, if at all. But with Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi struggling of late, McHale had Hamilton as the first wing player off the bench and played him for 24 excellent minutes. And while Hamilton did have 12 points on 7 shots, I was in fact more impressed by his 5 rebounds.
Houston may have a reputation as a mediocre defensive team, but the Rockets are in fact very good at preventing opponents from hitting shots. The problem is that they have been an awful team at actually securing the defensive board after said missed shot, as all too often Howard will go for the block and thus leave another big man wide open for the putback. In a recent interview with 790, Morey cited this problem as a reason for the Hamilton trade, noting that the young swingmen is an excellent rebounder for his position. Tonight, Hamilton certainly delivered. Shooting can come and go, as the contrast with Garcia last year to the current Garcia can attest. But rebounding and hustle generally do not, and that is where Hamilton can contribute even on those nights when his shot will be off.