The Houston Rockets were the two seed in the Western Conference for just about twenty-four hours exactly. Rockets pulled back into a tie with Memphis for a few minutes, who holds the tiebreaker and more importantly then beat the Sacramento Kings to take back their half-game lead on the Rockets. The Western Conference is a cruel battlefield, where a severely undermanned squad on a back to back can’t afford a loss to a four seed out east. The reality of the Eastern Conference is exactly opposite: a three point victory on the back of DeMar DeRozan’s career high over a badly hobbled opponent is just what the doctor ordered to get things going again. The Rockets might only have held vice-court for a single day, but sometimes a single day makes all the difference.

The showdown of the game was DeRozan vs James Harden, and today Toronto came out ahead in that matchup. Harden shot 9-22 and hung the only 30 point performance of the season on Toronto’s defense with 31 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. He had it going in spurts, and got to the line 12 times, but wasn’t able to make it through the litany of defenders Toronto threw at him. DeMar DeRozan, on the other hand, took over in the absent Kyle Lowry’s stead and had a monster 42 point and 11 rebound night, including a game-clinching two right over Harden’s defense. DeRozan was in rare form, and if he plays like that every night, the Raptors are in great shape.

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Well, the Houston Rockets are in the playoffs.

Let us not forget how at the beginning of the season, Houston was a dark-horse pick…to miss the playoffs altogether, especially if either Harden or Howard got hurt. Yet here they are, just a half-game from the second seed in the Western Conference.

But the Rockets have not reached their potential. There were glimpses of it tonight with Dwight, as Houston just reached another level while he was on the court. Houston did play well enough tonight that Kevin McHale sent out human victory cigar K.J. McDaniels with two minutes left. But I have no doubt that if Howard could play like normal, this game would have been over by the start of the fourth quarter.

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Dwight Howard is alive and well. He’s dunking in traffic, finishing alley-oops, defending the paint and grabbing rebounds. He suited up after a two month absence, played 16 minutes, and did all the things Dwight Howard should be doing. The Rockets also won a critical game against a division rival, gained a game on the team ahead of them, and didn’t lose anyone else to injury. To top it all off, Houston came back from a dismal first quarter to erase a 17-point deficit and in fact take a double digit lead for much of the second half. The Rockets got everything they wanted and more, and remain undefeated with Jason Terry as a starter.

James Harden, true to his promise, changed nothing with Howard back in a jersey. Harden attacked the basket, shoot his man, drew fouls, and started his evening out with a beautiful dish to a dunking Dwight. Without Patrick Beverley (torn wrist ligament) for the foreseeable future, Harden’s handling and creation abilities are coming into full focus. He responded with 10 assists to go with his 25 points, and his effect was apparent whenever he left the floor.The Rockets struggled to find any offense without Harden, but steamrolled the Pelicans with his help. Harden remains the engine that drives the team, and Houston had better hope he can get some rest and avoid injury for the rest of the season.

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Poor George Hill.

Poor Solomon Hill, poor C.J. Miles and poor Ian Mahinmi.

The poor, poor Indiana Pacers.

When James Harden is in attack mode, all you can do is pity the fool opposing team, primarily whatever sucker gets tasked with attempting to wrangle the Beard on a given play.

And Monday night in Indiana, Harden was in attack mode.  He ended the night with 44 points, thanks in large part to sinking 21(!) of his 22(!!) attempted free throws.  And this wasn’t the ref-baiting, flop-master that so many Harden detractors detest.  This was the expert scoring machine that knows how to protect his space with the ball and penetrate the defender’s all at the same time.

As much as I cherish listening to Bill Worrell talk basketball, I get a real kick out of listening to opposing broadcasts digest this Rockets team.  Harden’s Morey-Ball.  Dwight Howard’s post game.  Josh Smith’s J-Smoove-ness.  There is a lot to take in.  [read more…]






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Heading into this evening, the Houston Rockets were one game back of the second-seed Memphis Grizzlies, one game ahead of the fourth-seed Portland Trail Blazers, and an enviable situation. With Memphis and Portland facing off, the Rockets could be assured to pick up a game on one of them if they could just beat the Phoenix Suns, a team at the bottom of the playoff bubble and a team all but eliminated from that race. All Houston had to do was complete the sweep against Phoenix to make a huge stride in a close, crucial playoff race. Even in a worst-case scenario, the Rockets wouldn’t lose any ground to the Blazers.

Worst case scenarios have a way of updating themselves when you’re not looking, like phone apps or guest lists. It turns out that falling two games behind Memphis wasn’t the worst that could happen, because other, worse things happened, too. Not only did that Rockets go from being up 12 to down 13 in a quarter and a half, they also lost another big man to injury and saw one of James Harden’s worst performances of the year. Some nights, the only consolation is that lightning didn’t strike James Harden and burn his beard off.

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