With three quarters in the books in Cleveland, the Houston Rockets had scored 101 points and led the Cavaliers by 22 points. After three quarters of dominance, the Rockets let their foot off the gas as the Cavaliers floored it for all they were worth. The effect was awkward, spotty, and hard to watch from all angles, as an accelerating Cavs team still sputtered and clanked along the way. The Rockets’ deep bench was unable to keep up with the energy of Cleveland and nearly fell apart late. The buffer the starters had built proved strong enough, and the Rockets made it out of Cleveland in one piece.
The biggest takeaway from this, as with all the games against losing teams of late, is that the Rockets are putting away the teams they need to put away. In the early going, an extended spurt of activity, a bout of intensity or just a hot hand from a lottery team could spell doom for the Rockets. The chemistry was half-mixed, the sets were still coming together, and the effort was spotty. Now, the Rockets threw away an entire quarter and still cruised to a win. Most notably, the effort is there, even though there’s little at stake.
James Harden gave a lot of effort, part of a recent and extending trend. He scored a game-high 37 points on 15 shots and dished out an astonishing 11 assists and grabbed 4 steals in 29 minutes. He was assertive, effective, and terrifying. He needed less than 30 minutes of game time to absolutely torch the Cavaliers, a feat which is impressive even given the talent and injury level of the competition. Harden is ramping it up at exactly the right time.
Dwight Howard, on the other hand, is taking some games off. He had a cyst removed from his ankle and has sat out the last three games. He was available against the Cavaliers, but head coach Kevin McHale correctly discerned that the Rockets could afford to give their star center some rest and still take the game. Ömer Aşık started in Howard’s place once again and looks increasingly spry. He had 9 points and 9 rebounds to go with 2 blocks and a rare post up play (which predictably failed). Getting Aşık into form by the playoffs has to be a top priority this season, and McHale seems committed to that plan.
The rest of the starters all looked solid, getting back into the groove they’ve been searching for. Parsons scored 19 points and had some very nice layups, something he’ll need to threaten teams with come April. Terrence Jones came alive in the third quarterto shoot 4-5. Patrick Beverley shot 50% overall and had an amazing first half from deep. The chemistry is there.
Jeremy Lin, the giant question mark, continued to keep us guessing. He had only 1 turnover, 6 rebounds and 2 steals and was perfect from the stripe, but he also had a paltry 3-13 from the field and only racked up 1 assist. He fell apart along with the bench in the fourth quarter, and looked somewhat lost after a strong showing earlier in the game. As much as anyone, he depends on and feeds off of the energy of the team, something that could help or hurt the Rockets in the playoffs depending on how the games go.
Last but probably best, Donatas Motiejunas continued his metamorphosis into a real NBA player. He was a perfect 5-5 from the field, played decent defense, and was a real post-up threat. His contribution was unquestionably positive, even though he somehow avoided even a single rebound. He looks calmer and more confident when he throws up his that deep hook that he specializes in. He’s tall, long and now that he’s confident, it’s increasingly hard for opposing players to get in his way. If Motiejunas can keep this up, he takes a lot of pressure off of a Houston bench that’s looked increasingly questionable.
With nothing on the line, with little reason to try for a third seed, little chance of making it, and almost no chance at falling to fifth, the Rockets are still playing ball with energy and pride. While the Rockets seemed content to coast early in the going, the team now looks driven and competent against lesser teams. Beating the bottom feeders does not a contender make, but doing so can only be a good sign for a team hoping to surprise the world in a month.