If the aphorism that a championship team can win games even when they play badly is true, then the Houston Rockets should start planning the parade right about now. Sure, Trevor Ariza just got hot from downtown, and sure the Rockets did shoot extremely well themselves, and sure Dwight Howard made Marcin Gortat and Nene look silly, and Harden put up 35 points, and Donatas Motiejunas 11 to help the bench. But the reality is that 9 times out of 10, with Houston down 2 points with 4 seconds left and having failed to make a field goal in nearly 5 minutes, the Rockets would have lost this game largely due to shoddy perimeter defense and an absolutely unacceptable passing game which created a ludicrous 26 turnovers. But a poor foul from Trevor Ariza and a clutch layup from James Harden meant that the Rockets did not so much as win as more they escaped.
The turnovers, really, should receive the first focus of the game, even more so than Harden’s heroics. Bill Worrell, Houston’s commentator, stated at one point that the Rockets had not turned the ball over more than 20 times in around 30 games. I’ll admit that this was a pleasant surprise and a nice change from the beginning of the season, when handing out 20 turnovers seemed to happen more often than not. Washington is one of the very best teams in the league at forcing turnovers, and they have the long, athletic player in Ariza, John Wall, and Martell Webster to do it. But a lot of Houston’s turnovers were Jeremy Lin, Harden, and Howard trying out passes that they had no business attempting, as those three players combined for 16 of the 26 turnovers. The last five minutes are a good example, as Houston had three turnovers in that stretch. Lin attempted a foolish half-court pass to Dwight which got picked off, Dwight attempted a bad cross-court pass to Lin, and Terrence Jones shuffled his feet. To top it off, the fact that so many turnovers were the result of bad passes meant that Washington got the opportunity to push the ball in transition, bolstering their anemic half-court offense. It was without a doubt the single worst thing about this game, much more so than Trevor Ariza catching fire in the third quarter.
Oh. Right. Ariza. Ariza had played decently well for the first two quarters of the game, but with 3:31 left in the 3rd quarter, the Rockets were leading by 19, and Nene really had been the best Washington player at that point. But over the next 3 minutes, the Wizards hit 6 straight 3 pointers. 5 of them were by Ariza, who hit a career high 10 3-pointers and went 7-7 in the third. A lot of Ariza’s earlier threes were the result of bad defense, especially from Harden’s ball-watching habits. But even after the Rockets latched onto Ariza at the end of the 3rd quarter, he continued to hit anyways, just like Chandler Parsons’s valiant effort against the Memphis Grizzlies. Fortunately, Ariza was shut down in the 4th quarter, but the Wizards did retake the lead of Houston turnovers until Harden saved the day.
As for Harden? Rahat has discussed in the past his own concerns about Harden-ball in the last few minutes, but I take a different perspective. I remember how the Kevin Martin-Luis Scola-Aaron Brooks Rockets, even with an offensive mastermind in Rick Adelman at the helm, struggled badly at the end of games because the time limitations meant that running plays was difficult and Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks are not exactly players who should be receiving the ball at the end of the game. Scoring at the end of games is difficult in general. Tonight, however, the Rockets were able to ride Harden over the final two possessions, and it resulted in free throws and an absolutely spectacular layup to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Ultimately, the victory over Washington is not one which should go down in the annals of great victories. But a win is a win, 7 wins in a row is still good, and the Houston Rockets could very well be tied in 3rd place at the All-Star break depending on the results of tonight’s Clippers-Blazers game. For now, I guess I’ll take it.