It took a while to get there, but the Rockets finally clinched home court advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs happened to be the team in the way of it, and they also happened to get swept by the Rockets. The Spurs might have been resting starters late, they may have let many key players sit the whole game, and they may have rallied back with their deep bench, but in the end a win is a win. The Rockets will bring the playoffs back to Houston for game one… right after one game in New Orleans.
If you squint just a little bit, that was a great showing from the Rockets. Sure, much of it came against Cory Joseph and Jeff Ayres, but that’s not as big of an asterisk as it may seem. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is one of the best ever because his system is the team MVP. There’s a reason the Spurs won 60 games despite suffering injury after injury. To beat the Spurs’ bench is still to beat the Spurs’ system, something teams like the Miami Heat have learned well. The Rockets also seemed to face well against the starters for San Antonio, only stuttering when the Spurs bench stepped in. This has been a common malady lately, and one that likely stems from effort and urgency as much as anything else. Don’t let anyone tell you this wasn’t a good win.
The most important factor in that win was getting the band back together. With Chandler Parsons back in action, head coach Kevin McHale had a full complement to work with, and he showed us something like his playoff rotation. The Rockets had some unpleasant defensive breakdowns when Ömer Aşık took to the paint, but overall the defense was an improvement. The Rockets ran people off the three point line, something that the Spurs in particular are lethal at. They hit some key shots to retake the lead late, but many of them were mid-range shots, and it was unsustainable for San Antonio. In a true playoff game, things might have gone differently. If all goes well, we should have a chance to check on that in a few weeks.
The Rockets got into the swing of things, scoring at will (most of the time) and seeing every starter score in double digits. James Harden may have had the ugliest line of any starter, and he scored 16 points on 16 shots, racked up 7 assists and hit a cold-blooded stepback jumper to ice the game. He’s much more deadly this season than last, and hopefully this continues into May. His ability to create space has pushed his game to a new level. Even when he has a terrible shooting night, such as tonight, he can still parlay 4-16 shooting into a memorable and worthwhile performance. He was vulnerable to being shut down by good defenses last season. That’s increasingly a thing of that past, and the league needs to hunker down for a prime he isn’t even near yet.
Dwight Howard shot 9-11, scored 20 points, pulled down 17 boards and just generally killed it tonight. He had a couple lapses defensively, lapses which will be picked apart on film, but he looked more like the mighty January Dwight and less like the ailing March Dwight. Duncan had a hard time scoring past him, nobody could check him on the block, and he went after offensive rebounds with aplomb. He doesn’t just look ready for the playoffs, he’s practically salivating at the idea. If and when the Rockets lose out, it won’t be due to a lack of willingness from Dwight.
Chandler Parsons returned to score 21 points. Terrence Jones put together a double double, hustled his but off and deposited a very, very nasty one handed alley-oop jam into the highlight reels. Patrick Beverley scored 12 points and looked like his old self. The starters looked a far sight better than they have in weeks, and it couldn’t come at a better time. The bench? Well, that’s a different story. Lin, Garcia and Motiejunas all ended with more shots than points. Aşık’s defense wasn’t as stalwart as usual, though he did grab 8 rebounds in only 17 minutes. The bench may need a game to round into form. If only there were one more game in the season against a badly depleted lottery team, one more game the Rockets don’t care if they lose.
The Rockets move to 11-4 against the Southwest Division with that win and have a chance to end at 12-4 in New Orleans on Wednesday. It may not have been the perfect game, but any win against the Spurs is a good win. This year, the Rockets managed to get that good win four times, clinch home court with the last one and get back on track for the playoffs. Nope, not a bad win at all.