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Houston Rockets 112, Cleveland Cavaliers 104: Where Kyrie Irving is amazing, but James Harden is even better.

The Charlotte Bobcats, a team that lost 18 games in a row this season, currently possess a better record than the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Cleveland has a roster which outside of Kyrie Irving, appears embarrassingly bad as esteemed individuals such as Luke Walton (finally on the last year of that deal signed oh so long ago with the Lakers) and Shaun Livingston were out on the court for significant minutes tonight.  Combine that with the fact that Anderson Varejao, who has been putting up All-Star level numbers this season, sat out tonight with a right knee injury, and one should have expected an easy Houston victory.

Unfortunately, it was not the case.  For while the Cavaliers possess several major weaknesses, they do have energy and length, which for one night, combined with the heroics of Mr. Irving, threatened to upset the second game of the Rockets’ roadtrip before James Harden did James Harden things.

Cleveland came out strong from the beginning and in fact turned Houston’s style of fast-paced offense against them as the Cavaliers players raced out to quick buckets, grabbed rebounds, and hustled to an early 10 point lead lead.  Every single Houston starter played incredibly poorly at the beginning as they missed shots and had rebounds grabbed from under them, but the arrival of the bench served to steady the game.  Nevertheless, the Cavaliers won the quarter by six points.

Harden played poorly on the offensive end in the first quarter and his struggles continued in the second, but the story there instead turned into a duel between Jeremy Lin and Kyrie Irving.  Lin scored 14 of his 20 points in the second quarter, and most importantly of all, hit all 3 of his made 3-pointers as well.  It was definitely encouraging to see him improve on that end given his current dismal rate of 26 percent, and the Rockets took advantage of a Cleveland offense lacking any scorers outside of Irving to take the lead into the second half.

Still, Cleveland continued to hang in there as Irving grew more aggressive in the second half and they made timely shots.  But in the fourth quarter, after Irving hit the first jumper to give Cleveland an 80-78 lead, Harden, after going 2 for 11, rode in and saved the day.  Again.

The numbers speak for themselves.  16 points in the fourth ( though a few of those points came during the equivalent of garbage time), his 12th straight game of 25 points or more which is now tied for the second longest streak with Elvin Hayes in the history of the Rockets, and some absolutely incredible shots, such as a possession where he lost control of the ball only to  regain it and hit a 3 pointer from about eight feet behind the line.  His handle did seem to be strangely off today, but Harden compensated for that by playing possibly his best defense of the year.  While Irving did finish with 30 points, he also had 8 turnovers, many of them the result of Harden’s 7 steals.

In yesterday’s ESPN game between the Clippers and the Lakers, Jeff van Gundy noted that Harden should be mentioned as a MVP candidate.  While no one would suggest that he actually win it (yet), I think the idea of him not being a maximum contract player is dead and buried as he leads the Rockets to a 20-14 record.

  • Chandler Parsons finally hit his first three in about five games, a corner 3 midway through the 3rd quarter, but 1-5 is of course hardly anything to brag about.  Compared to another white wing who the Rockets drafted in the second round and heavily struggled in his sophomore campaign after a strong rookie year, Parsons is notably better than Chase Budinger due to his far better versatility, but it is still concerning for him to miss 3 pointers this badly.  At the beginning of the season, I believed that consistency was always the key to Parsons ensuring a good performance in his second season more than improvement in any particular area.  Let’s hope that he can improve back to his excellent performances from earlier in the season.
  • In the last game against Milwaukee, Kevin McHale played Greg Smith for merely two minutes of garbage time and instead opted for his infamous lineup of playing Patrick Patterson at the 5 that he utilized heavily last year.  While I had wondered whether that might signify a long-term trend, it currently appears that it was an anomaly used against a Bucks team with many long forwards but no proper centers. Smith came out early tonight in the first quarter and played a key role in turning the game around in the first quarter as he finished well and grabbed rebounds over the Cleveland bigs.  Still, it is easy to see even performances like these areas in which Smith could improve.  Smith has a tendency to make the old mistake of playing defense with one’s hands instead of feet, which helps to explain the fact that he has not particularly improved in correcting his excessive foul rate.  (A pity that Chuck Hayes, the master at using his lower body, went to Sacramento).  Also, while he was hardly alone in his struggles, Smith shot an uncharacteristically poor 1-5 from the free throw line.

I believe that it should be mentioned in the aftermath of this victory that the recent play of the Rockets merits some concern.  Ever since the Rockets buried the Hawks behind a barrage of 3 pointers, they have faced the Hornets without Eric Gordon, the Bucks, and the Cavaliers without Varejao.  In all three of those games, Houston struggled significantly for much of the game and had to rely on either team heroics, or James Harden being James Harden, Superstar Extraordinaire, to secure the win.  Perhaps it’s a sign of how far Houston has come that one can almost expect the Rockets to blow out weaker teams on a regular basis, but hopefully Tuesday’s game against the Lakers will really show how tough this team can be against stiffer competition.

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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.