More than anything else, this game was defined by turnovers. All game the Rockets were immensely sloppy, and with fast-break maestro Goran Dragic at the helm the Suns took advantage big time, scoring 29 points off 22 Rockets turnovers. When you combine that with an 18 point deficit from behind the three point line, the numbers do not look good for a Rockets win. But behind a balanced scoring effort that saw all the starters in double figures, Houston was able to stay in touch down the stretch and pulled off an escape on the back of some clutch play by Patrick Beverley.
With the Suns up two and 45 seconds left on the clock, the ball was in Harden’s hands. Usually in situations like this it would be isolation time, but Tucker has shut Harden down in one-on-one situations whenever the two have played and so for once the they were willing to run something different. Motiejunas and Howard took turns to offer him picks until he found one he liked and was able to free himself from Tucker’s attentions. Once he got into the lane he drew the defenders and kicked to a wide open Beverley, who knocked down the three to put the Rockets up one. From there, the team was able to get a couple of stops and won the game from the free-throw line (despite being forced to call on Motiejunas’ 58.8% FT% at one point).
- Howard doing an especially good job of intimidating Phoenix drivers tonight. He was forcing drivers to their left and then presenting a huge obstacle for the driver to shoot over. What was especially great about it was that he was able to do this without compromising the defensive glass. Morey mentioned in his press conference introducing Hamilton that he was concerned about the team’s defensive rebounding when Howard goes to contest. But the team has obviously worked on it because whenever the situation occurred tonight the PF was there to clean it up. It also allowed him to register a spectacular block where he almost reached the top of the square – everyone in the stadium was convinced it was a goaltend and it took the replay to show them how wrong they were.
- Howard and Jones look to be getting some nice chemistry working when Dwight posts up. A couple of times when Howard was pushed a bit further away from the basket Jones ducked in underneath and Howard was able to find him out of his post moves for easy looks. It’s encouraging to see Howard being more aware with his passes – he’s never been known as a good passer but he does seem capable in the right conditions. He produced a couple of great looks for three point shooters as well that sadly didn’t go down.
- In the first half the team really struggled to contain Dragic, who was having a dominant night. By half time he had 25 points, including 5/6 from beyond the arc. If anyone went under a screen, he made them pay. Rockets fans should be familiar with Dragic’s electric precision on the break – he is quick and effective and when he gets the ball in the open court his team almost always scores. With all the Rockets turnovers tonight he was able to feast, and by the end of the game he had a new career high of 35 points.
- It seemed as though Beverley was looking to be more aggressive than usual and get into the lane. It had mixed results – sometimes he was able to pull up for some nice floaters, but often he ended up getting out of control and throwing the ball away. It is clear this is an area where he is not as comfortable as Lin, and he’ll need to work on reining in his momentum after the initial burst of speed to get past his man.
- McHale showed a lot of trust in Motiejunas tonight by leaving him in to finish the game. Interestingly they were going with a cross-match – McHale put Motiejunas on Frye and had Howard guarding Markieff Morris. I think he may have felt that D-Mo’s length would give him a better chance of chasing Channing Frye around the perimeter, and Frye was certainly kept quiet. Unfortunately, Morris’ quickness caused Howard problems and he was able to get some easy points out of the matchup (21 points on 11 shots).
- With 4 minutes left in the game, Harden got whistled for his 5th foul but stayed in the game. There were a couple of possessions where you could see him being more tentative than usual on the help defence because of it, and you could probably attribute at least two Phoenix baskets to that. But crucially he was able to avoid fouling out in order to be around for the end of the game.
- Either it was a really noisy crowd in Phoenix tonight, or they turned up the volume of the crowd noise on the telecast. I really liked it – often it feels like you don’t get the full effect of the crowd when you’re watching the NBA remotely, especially compared to how they do it in the UK where the sound balance is shifted towards the stadium noise a bit more. But there’s nothing quite like the swell of a boisterous crowd to make a game seem more exciting.