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Houston Rockets 105, Golden State Warriors 83 – All defense, no threes

The Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors combined to hit 8 three pointers is 44 tries. That’s a total of 18%: 2-16 for Golden State and 6-28 for Houston. That’s a horrible, grim, coma-inducing number for any team, let alone a combination of two of the most avid and most accurate three point shooting teams in the league. Judging from three pointers alone, one might surmise that the game was a sloppy, ugly clank-fest on both sides. Well, one, you surmised incorrectly. The three point shot might have gone, but the defense and the mental intensity showed up instead.

Here’s an interesting sentence that I get to write: James Harden did a great job shutting down Klay Thompson. James Harden was locked in defensively all night, and along with Dwight Howard’s excellent rim protection was critical in holding the explosive Warriors to a mere 83 points. The good news is that the Rockets showed that many of their defensive problems can  be linked to a matter of focus. The bad news is that they don’t seem willing or able to focus as much as they need to every single game.

Perhaps the return of Chandler Parsons helped key in the defense. Parsons was back in the lineup again, and the team responded better with him on the court. He’s a far better creator than Francisco Garcia,and the starting lineup clearly works better on offense with Parsons in the mix. He may only have shot 3-13 on the night (for 8 points), but his 4 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals easily made up for it.

The suddenly-defensively-skilled James Harden piled on the points instead, scoring 34 on 22 shots, grabbing 7 rebounds, 4 assists, a steal, a block and his requisite 4 turnovers. Harden was passing happily in this game, and that seems to be the hallmark of his more dominating performances. When he only looks to score, teams can zero in on him and make him pay. On nights like this, when he looks to make the assist, teams are forced to account for Houston’s secondary weapons. That’s when Harden strikes, and strike he did, repeatedly and viciously. Early in the game, Harden threw down a nasty one-handed breakaway slam that set the tone for the whole evening. The Rockets were proving a point.

Dwight Howard proved him own point, and he did it at the stripe. He hit 12 of his 20 free throws, a number which was only good because of context. Warriors head coach Mark Jackson went to a smite-a-Dwight strategy in the third quarter, and Rockets head coach Kevin McHale chose to leave the big man in the game. Howard made good on that choice by hitting three of four free throws in one stretch and only extending Houston’s already sizable lead. Howard ended the night on 5-8 shooting for 22 points and dragged down a massive pile of 18 rebounds. Dwight looked like the Dwight Houston was hoping for against the Warriors.

Terrence Jones, for his part, had a quietly excellent game, another double double. He racked up 16 points ant 10 rebounds, a line that would have been exultant for him a mere month ago. Now, it’s just a Friday. Terrence Jones might be the biggest positive surprise for the Rockets, and his development is both surprising and needed. This level of play from him helps the Rockets look like a legitimate contender.

The Warriors, however, didn’t look like the Warriors. Stephen Curry ended with 22 points on 14 shots, but he missed 9 of those shots and went 1-5 from downtown. Klay Thompson, the other half of the so-called “super splash brothers” ended the night with a mortifying 5 points on 2-10 shooting and failed to hit a single three pointer. Andrew Bogut couldn’t contain Dwight Howard, and the Warriors’ starting center had to sit with fouls early and often. Golden State is still missing Andre Iguodala, and his return will mean a marked improvement for the team, but they have plenty to think about in the meantime.

McHale, for his part, left starters in far longer than he should have, presumably due to watching the recent Warriors-Raptors game in which the Warriors stormed back from a 27 point deficit in the third quarter to win by 9. If there’s one team that a 20+ point lead feels shaky against, t’s the Warriors, a team which can heat up to supernova levels at any moment.

The Rockets had the bounce-back game they needed against a team they needed to beat. One of the only teams that the Rockets actually claim rivalry with, the Golden State Warriors came out flat against a much-improved Rockets defense. When Patrick Beverley got a tip-in on his own free throw miss (via a tip by Dwight), the game was already over. The Rockets might not know how to give the 90-or-so percent the long regular season demands, but they can definitely amp it up to 100 when they have a reason to care.

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