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Houston Rockets 104, New Orleans Hornets 92: Tough Victories count too.

In the aftermath of the Yao Ming era, the Rockets have defined themselves by always working hard and gritting out performances.  For the next three years, this team has continually surprised expectations, whether led by Brooks or Martin or Lowry or Scola, and battled gamely for the playoffs before collecting the prize of the 14th pick.  It was definitely frustrating for those who advocated for this team to rebuild and tank for a theoretical superstar, but I personally always appreciated this team’s refusal to not roll over and give up like the Bobcats and Wizards have done.

However, talent more often than not is what determines victory or defeat.  And on a night where Houston notably struggled against an inferior team that played their hardest, it was nice for a change to just simply out-talent the Hornets for the win.

The pattern of the first quarter established the theme for the majority of the game.  The Hornets took the early 23-21 lead by the end of the quarter, but it was not something to be seriously concerned about as it was built on the backs of mid-range jumper after jumper while the Rockets passed and bulled their way into the paint.  Asik in particular was fantastic from the offensive end in the first quarter, earning eight points in five minutes of play off of passes from Harden.  He even managed a successful post-up against Robin Lopez with a nice jump hook, but the fact that that worked at all shows how far Asik has to go on the offensive end.  Overall, Asik managed to tie his career high of 21 points, though he was repeatedly outworked by Robin Lopez and the other Hornets bigs on the boards and finished with by his standards, a pedestrian 8 rebounds.

The second and third quarters were really more of the same.  The Rockets managed to take the lead and hold on to it against an inferior team, but the effort was never quite there to put it away for good.  While the Hornets’s mid-range jumpers fell off, they rebounded well enough and harassed the Rockets from the 3 point line and in transition to keep it close – after setting a season record of 16 3-pointers against Atlanta in the last game, Houston made one in the first half, and only 5 out of 24 overall.  While the Rockets led and slowly increased their lead throughout the game, Mr. Drexler and Bullard observed that a good Hornets run in the fourth quarter could turn this into an embarrassing loss.

For a moment, it seemed like that would be the case in the fourth quarter.  The Rockets started off with the first basket to bump up the lead to 10, but then an incorrect out of bounds call by the referees gave New Orleans the ball even though it went off of Ryan Anderson.  Anderson took advantage of the free possession to hit a 3, and the Rockets seemed to be emotionally shaken by the call.  The defense lapsed, New Orleans began to hit jumpers again, and they rolled off a 9-0 run to close the lead.  While Harden came back in to steady the game, the Hornets would eventually tie the game at 82 with seven minutes to go.  With the momentum seemingly on their side, there was a definite cause for concern.

But tonight, at the very end, the team contributed.  There was no overwhelming reliance on Harden or any other single player to bail the Rockets out as occurred in Minnesota.  Houston regrouped, and every single member began to play defense and actually take the game seriously.  A missing crisp efficiency appeared on the court, the players began to make a timely layup or jumper, and a game that could have potentially slipped away turned into a rout at the very end.  For the youngest team in the league, the ability to rally and emotionally collect themselves is an invaluable trait (see: Kings, Sacramento).  The Rockets may be the youngest team in the league with only one real veteran in Delfino, but the key rotation players have all battled significant adversity to get to where they are today and thus show poise beyond their years.  That is something which separates good teams from the rest, and as they fight to make the playoffs, they will need it to stay strong.

  • There is absolutely no doubt that Houston currently possesses the best young shooting guard in the league right now, as Harden finished with 31 points and seven assists.  He has now scored above 25 points in his last ten straight games, and above 30 in five of those ten.  The fact is that Harden is currently destroying any of Tracy McGrady’s seasons as a Houston Rocket and is in fact performing better than Drexler’s seasons outside of the championship year.  Furthermore, with a complete lack of All-Star teammates, the Rockets according to Mr. Hollinger’s predictions may finish as a near 50-win team, an absolutely stunning achievement to even those who thought highly of Harden at the time of the trade.  It may be hyperbole to some degree, but I do sincerely believe that if he continues at his current rate for years to come, Harden could very well become the third greatest Rocket and the greatest wing in this franchise’s illustrious history behind Hakeem and Moses Malone.  His defense may need some work, but he has plenty of time to develop and grow into a perennial All-Star and All-NBA player.
  • While every Rockets fan understands how great Harden is, it was slightly disappointing tonight that Eric Gordon was unable to play thanks to his continual recovery from one injury after another.  The closest Harden may have to a rival given the position and age, Gordon has had two good games with 24 and 11 points on limited minutes before sitting out for tonight.  I cannot say that I am too disappointed since Gordon may very well have made the difference between victory and defeat given Houston’s sloppy performance for much of the night, but hopefully there will be future battles between those two wings for years to come.
  • When Rockets fans wondered about the battle for the power forward position at the beginning of this season, I could have probably counted the number of people who anticipated a strong battle for the starting spot between Patterson and Morris on one hand.  Nevertheless, Patterson struck the first blow to regain his spot tonight with a strong performance especially in the fourth quarter.  For once, Patterson performed extremely well on the defensive boards, grabbing several tough rebounds and drawing appreciation from the Rockets commentators.  His jumper also returned to some extent, but more importantly, he banged inside and received several excellent passes from Lin which he promptly finished.  Patterson’s tendency to play soft has always been a concern, but tonight he exhibited none of it.  May Morris, who had a decidedly mediocre game with 5 points on 2-7 shooting, bounce back to continue this struggle against Milwaukee.
  • While not necessarily part of the game as he did not play a second, Houston’s most recent free agent signing, James Anderson, was on the bench.  The 20th pick by the 2010 draft by the Spurs, Anderson played decently his rookie season before a foot injury sidetracked his career, and the Spurs waived him about two weeks ago.  Houston has waived Daequan Cook to obtain him.  I don’t anticipate a lot from Anderson, but Cook was hardly impressive with his limited minutes on the court and the Rockets do need wing depth if they don’t intend to run Harden into the ground.  Let’s hope the best from him.

The Rockets stand at 18-14 and will be embarking on a roadtrip for five of the next six games, but none of them are particularly dangerous teams with the exception of the ever-mercurial Lakers.  A strong push will help to push the Rockets ahead of the Minnesota-Portland tier of teams competing for a spot at all and into the Golden State-Denver group of which spot to obtain.  For now, all is well.

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About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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