I don’t believe what I witnessed. Sure, the Indiana Pacers had lost two straight games before tonight, and had been blown out by the Charlotte Bobcats. But that was all the more reason that tonight’s game would be a tough, bitter contest, where James Harden, Dwight Howard, and the rest of the Rockets would have to fight to earn every point from Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and the rest of the Pacers, right?
Well, to a degree, the Rockets did have to fight a bit on offense. They only scored 50 points in the first half, as opposed to seemingly breaking 60 every other game. But they didn’t need an amazing offense to hold Indiana at bay, as the defense did the work – and then when the offense exploded in the third quarter, spearheaded by James Harden’s tomahawk slams and 3’s, the result was a beautiful symphony of total basketball dominance, as Houston earned its best win yet of a great season.
And yes, I said the defense did the work. Houston has been maligned, and justly so, for its defense for much of the season. The Rockets have been a lackadaisical defensive team at times, far too dependent on Dwight Howard to cover up the mistakes of the perimeter players, which does little good when said perimeter players choose to just go for the wide open jump shot. But tonight? No, the Rockets weren’t going to have any of it. When the Pacers tried to go for the pass, the Rockets were there with the steal. When they went to the post, they drew charges. And when they went inside, there was Dwight Howard. David West was really the only Pacers who could do any scoring as he overpowered Terrence Jones a few times, and 15 points is a far cry from someone who is on my list alongside Jason Terry as “Guys who play like a cross between Hakeem and Jordan when they’re up against the Rockets.” One play in particular summed up the game – after a Houston free throw in the second quarter, the Pacers grabbed the board and threw a long pass for the cherry pick to Lance Stephenson. In December, that would have been an easy Indiana layup. Instead, Harden swooped in, snatched the ball out of the air with one hand, and drilled a three pointer a few seconds later.
Oh, and Harden? One thing that you frequently hear about Harden is the refrain of “He may draw fouls now, but in the playoffs, against the good perimeter defenders and when the referees hold the whistle, he won’t be able to score.” Ignoring the fact that the idea that referees don’t blow the whistle in the playoffs is a myth – LeBron, Durant and Chris Paul all draw MORE foul shots in the playoffs for example – Harden has shown over the last few games that he can score on just about anyone. Andre Iguodala gave Harden fits all of last season. Harden dropped 39 in the last game against Golden State. Indiana shut Harden down in the past, as he had averaged only 17 points per game against the Pacers as a Rocket. But tonight, Harden dropped 28 points, dropped 16 in the third quarter, and was just everywhere both on offense and defense. His normally stoic personality dropped for a bit at the end, and we saw someone excited and proud about this great win.
I could go on, and on, and on – from the bench stepping up to Howard beating Hibbert to Jeremy Lin finally playing well to the great 3 point shooting. But I won’t. There’s too much to celebrate this win. The Rockets are 2-0 in this stretch of death. There are four games left. And while Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers have been real challenges for the Rockets this season, this team knows that right now, it can beat any team in the league. This beatdown suffices as proof enough.