After the constant back-to-backs and games one after the other, it certainly came as a solid relief for the Houston Rockets to have some time off while playing only two to three games over a week. By contrast, the Phoenix Suns had to face off against Tom Thibodeau and his incredibly intense Chicago Bulls yesterday, meaning that their legs were not quite there tonight. The old-style Houston frontcourt of Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard thoroughly trounced Miles Plumlee, Channing Frye, and a Phoenix frontcourt which prefers jump shots to more traditional big men play, and the well-rested Rockets also had their best shooting performance in a long, long time. The result was a good, solid win, one with a few scares but where Houston possessed a decent lead for practically the entire game.
Both Jones and Dwight came out extremely aggressive to start the game. Jones drew first blood, as he grabbed three offensive rebounds on the very first possession of the game, and then either scored or assisted on 12 of Houston’s first 22 points. Once Jones slowed down a tad, Howard started to demand the ball in the post. Phoenix just did not have anyone who could handle Dwight; Plumlee did his very best, but Dwight still had 15 points by the end of the first half. Howard and Jones continued their rampage in the 2nd half. Howard did miss a few chip shots from the post that I’m sure that he would have liked to redo, but he still finished with 34 points on 17 shots.
But what was most impressive was that having failed to pay attention to Houston’s recent victories against San Antonio and Dallas, Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek decided that it was his turn to hack Dwight Howard at the end of the game. Howard responded by going 5-6 from the free throw line for that stretch, and finished 12-18 for the game: over the current winning streak, Howard is shooting about 65% from the line, a massive change compared to his 48% shooting over the course of January. If opposing coaches really want to use this hacking strategy so badly, they honestly should foul Jones instead.
Despite Howard’s incredible success, the Phoenix Suns never bothered to double-team Howard. It is well-known that a common strategy against Howard is that instead of focusing on stopping him, the defense concentrates on shutting down the 3 point shooters that Dwight could pass to if double-teamed. However, while the Suns did not succeed in slowing down Howard, and in fact bolstered his points by hacking, neither did they stop Houston’s three point shooters. Screens and rolls were set, and the Rockets hit over 60% from long range in tonight’s game (though Donatas Motiejunas should still be fined $50,000 whenever he even thinks of attempting a three), while the tired Suns could not keep up. Phoenix, particularly Goran Dragic, played brilliant offense in transition, and even grabbed a 46-40 lead at one point in the 2nd quarter. But on the whole, they could not keep with Houston’s big men and their halfcourt play.
- There are other perimeter defenders who seem to decide that they were put in this world to stop James Harden, but I can’t recall another, not even Tony Allen, who seems to dislike Harden as much as PJ Tucker – which is made all the better by the fact that said acrimony appears to be mutual. Harden did try to take Tucker on in the isolation a few times, and those admittedly really did not work. Nevertheless, Harden still had an excellent offensive game. He finished with 23 points on 10 shots and earned 12 foul shots, his highest amount since January 10 against Atlanta.
- Francisco Garcia has apparently recovered from knee tendinitis, but he did not play a single minute tonight. Garcia has badly struggled when he was healthy, and the arrival of Motiejunas has lessened the need for smallball and thus pushed him somewhat out of the rotation. Still, the fact that Houston has only two injured players at this point (or perhaps one, depending on your interpretation of Omer Asik’s situation) is enough reason for a small sigh of relief.