While the win over Golden State last week in Houston was without a doubt one of the better games to cover this season, this game had all the makings of a disaster. A Warriors team both desperate to win after losing four straight and angry over their humiliation at the Toyota Center, combined with their ever-raucous home crowd, would be a difficult place to win under ordinary circumstances. When it was revealed that superstar James Harden was suffering from a sore knee, the likelihood of an ugly, ugly game became even more apparent. Golden State jumped out to an early 21-12 lead at the beginning game off of their constant off-ball movement, and one could not help but worry at that point.
However, it was not to be. For while James Harden had a “subpar” game of 27 points on 7-22 shooting, the rest of the team, including the much-maligned Houston bench, stepped up instead. During every quarter, someone stepped up to at first keep Houston in the game against a furious Warriors offensive onslaught, and then the team turned it around in the 2nd half to earn the win. One couldn’t help but think of the Rockets teams in between the Yao era and Beardsanity, when Houston had to have someone, whether Lowry or Martin or Scola or Dragic, lead the team for the night. Tonight, everyone had their chance.
As already stated, the first quarter was initially very concerning. In contrast to the previous game where Sacramento took plenty of jumpers and just never stopped hitting them, the Warriors got to the paint thanks to their incredible ability of their players to move without the ball. Jump shooter Klay Thompson drove to the lane as Parsons struggled to keep up with the smaller guard, and the Rockets offense struggled as they attempted to establish a tired and injured Harden. However later in the game, the offense came back as Omer Asik took charge. While Asik naturally was the recipient of passes where all he had to do was catch and dunk, he did have an incredible play where he drove from beyond the free throw line straight for an easy layup as the Warriors watched with utter disbelief. Nevertheless, Golden State had a 34-30 lead.
Lin and Harden showed up to score in the second quarter, but it was less through making shots and more through repeatedly drawing fouls, as Harrison Barnes, Curry, Lee, and Bogut, all had 3 fouls by the end of the half. Similarly, while Houston played better defense in the paint (Aldrich came in after Asik played all 12 minutes and surprisingly did not commit any significant errors), the Warriors also drew their own share of fouls as Lin also finished with 3.
In the third quarter, Chandler Parsons arrived. Parsons had played well throughout the entire game as he finished the half shooting 3-3 with 6 assists, but he scored 11 points in the 3rd quarter. Houston managed a double-digit lead, but a last-minute Warriors push made it a 88-79 game with 12 minutes to go.
Yet while the obvious, initial strategy would be for the bench to hold off the Warriors until Harden had enough rest to work his magic, the bench came through in the end. After an incredibly stupid possession where he tried to grab an airballed Stephen Curry 3-pointer as it went out of bounds, Marcus Morris spent the next few minutes redeeming himself. He scored 7 points in the quarter ( including this ferocious dunk over Andrew Bogut) while Delfino contributed eight of his own and Patrick Beverley handled the ball as Harden rested on the court. While David Lee in general played a very poor game tonight (3-10 for 12 points), Morris also managed to play acceptable defense despite his lack of size, thus forcing the Warriors to rely on jump shots which just didn’t fall. In contrast to the Sacramento game, there were no insane shots, and so Houston cruised at the very end to an important and comfortable win.
- It says something when scoring 27 points on 22 shots is considered a bad game, but Harden was visibly not his usual self with his right knee troubles. He wore a large knee pad which had never been seen before and while he did drive hard as usual as evidenced through his 11 free throws, somehow still seemed to be passive. This was especially true during the 4th quarter as he was content to let the bench do most of the work in keeping the Warrior at bay until he hit a late 3 pointer to ice the game. In a move taken straight out of Gregg Popovich’s playbook, Marc Spears reported that Harden will likely rest for tomorrow’s game against the Clippers. He will however be fine for the All-Star game.
- I have never watched a D-League game before tonight, but in possibly the most hyped game in the minor league’s history, Royce White made his debut off the bench for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. White was in better game shape than I had expected and the court vision which he had been so famous for before the draft was readily apparent. Still, his non-existent shooting (two airballs) and defense are serious problems even if one is going to ignore everything which has transpired between him and the Rockets. #BeWell.
- With about 29 games to go, the Rockets are 3 games ahead of the Blazers, 3.5 games ahead of the Lakers, and 5.5 games ahead of the Mavericks. I’ve maintained that I do not view Portland as a serious threat towards Houston’s playoff chances – they owed their earlier good record due to an absolutely ridiculous record in clutch shooting, something which is largely a matter of luck and has begun to run out with their 4 game losing streak. The Blazers lacks the second gear to push for a spot which Dallas (if the Dirk of old returns) or the Lakers have. With LA beginning to resurge, I think it’s clear that they’re our biggest threat for the last spot.
- Stephen Curry may have had 27 points, but Jeremy Lin had 10 assists without a single turnover. Houston’s turnover numbers in general have improved quite a bit over the last month or so as the team gets used to one another. While the Rockets still turn the ball over more than any other team in the league, they have averaged only 13 over their six February games, which would make them the third-best team in the league if compared to the other teams. Statistics like these indicate a team which is growing and learning together – and not throwing as many bounce passes at Mr. Asik’s feet.