The Houston Rockets’ first lead was at 9-7 at the 8 minute mark in the first quarter, and ended when Eric Gordon made one of the many layups he got throughout the game on the way to a season-high 35 points. They would not regain the lead until there was 57 seconds left in the 4th quarter, when James Harden made two free throws to put the Rockets up 100-99. A New Orleans without Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, and Jrue Holliday led for nearly the entire 48 minutes and by as much as 17 points in the second quarter, the Rockets missed 16 free throws, and Houston’s bench became even more depleted than usual with injuries to Aaron Brooks and Greg Smith (again). But a general offense in the latter part of the second quarter, Terrence Jones in the third quarter, and James Harden to close out the stretch grasped victory from the jaws of defeat.
Some may be disappointed by the narrow victory over the depleted Pelicans, and there’s no doubt that the players New Orleans was missing are better than the players Houston was missing in tonight’s game. But one of the important aspects of the NBA season is how well the rest of the rotation can fill in for the inevitable injuries, and New Orleans was able to do a far better job at that than Houston could. Evans and Holliday may have been out, but that just meant more shots for Eric Gordon, who was ludicrously hot as he finished with a ridiculous 35 points on 17 shots ( Houston’s defense was poor on him for the first three quarters, but they did limit him to just one shot over the final 12 minutes). Ryan Anderson may have been out, but Anthony Davis showed why he’s the best young player in the league, and Alexis Ajinca and Greg Stiesma were acceptable substitutes.
The same was not true for Houston – Aaron Brooks may be worse than Anderson, Evans, or Holliday, but with Beverley out, the Rockets were forced to run Isiah Canaan at the backup point guard spot – and Canaan simply was not ready in tonight’s game, as he didn’t do a whole lot other than foul Austin Rivers. With Smith and Asik out, the Rockets only had three bigs available for the entire game. Donatas Motiejunas did very well tonight as he provided all of Houston’s bench scoring with 10 points and actually defended Anthony Davis passably (though Motiejunas should be fined whenever he thinks of attempting a 3). Nevertheless, being stuck with only 3 bigs against New Orleans, who just seemed to throw one 7 footer after another in Ajinca, Stiesma, Jason Smith, and even Jeff Withey for a moment, took its toll, especially since Howard struggled with foul trouble tonight.
New Orleans still managed to have depth even with its injuries. Houston currently does not, and one of its two superstars in Howard barely played due to foul trouble. Viewed from this perspective, what may at first seem to be a disappointing close victory can instead be interpreted as a sign of Houston’s perseverance despite continuing health issues and a weak bench.
- If we’re going to discuss team depth, a special shout-out to Francisco Garcia – because if Houston’s team depth is bad, its wing depth is horrendous largely due to Garcia. Garcia contributed absolutely nothing to tonight’s game. He did not even attempt a shot, which is in fact a noticeable trend for this January, as he has been only attempting a little over two 3’s per game as opposed to four earlier in the season. Given how poor Garcia’s play has been, you have to seriously worry about his confidence – especially since Houston really has no options on the wing but to hope Garcia gets better given Ronnie Brewer’s total offensive inadequacies.
- Terrence Jones was without a doubt the MVP of this game. He had a career-high 25 points with 12 in the 3rd quarter, grabbed 8 rebounds, and blocked 6 shots, many of them on perimeter shooters. Jones’s performance was slightly marred by a 5-10 night from the free throw line, as he missed every single attempt whenever he scored the And-1, and Jones’s third quarter performance did occur after Anthony Davis had to head to the bench after he picked up 3 fouls in 80 seconds. But it is still incredible to contrast such a performance with the hand-wringing Houston fans did about the power forward position in the preseason.