Going into this game, the Houston Rockets were only expected to make things mildly competitive, best case scenario. The team, without Chris Paul for its sixth straight game and their third primary playmaker in Eric Gordon, could have treated this performance as a way to get its supporting cast to develop more of an identity and rhythm. Expectations were realistic from #RocketsTwitter:
Today’s a “process” game for me – would love to see us continue to play well, especially defensively, get contributions from our wings, and Harden to keep driving us forward.
— StanfordKP (@stanfordkp) January 4, 2019
It was natural to expect the Rockets to chalk this game up as a schedule and injury loss for a team that is finally, to paraphrase Mike D’Antoni, “finding its sea legs.”
What transpired was arguably the greatest regular season performance of James Harden and, in the process, a reemergence of the “dog mentality” this Rockets team had in spades last season. When we look back at this season amidst hopefully the Rockets’ seventh playoff run in a row, we will perhaps see this game as a turning point in which the Rockets found something deeper to tap into. More than the Western Conference Finals last season, this game truly represented the David vs. Goliath battle NBA teams have waged against the Golden State Warriors for now five years straight.
The 1st half of the game played out as expected. The Rockets seemed completely out-manned with James Harden off the floor. Indeed, Harden took a hard hit to the head from Kevon Looney, and concerns of concussion once again rang, similar to Harden’s Game 6 against the Spurs in the 2017 playoffs:
Harden is playing with a concussion and shouldn’t be on the floor.
Warriors can’t miss.
This is just not a winnable game.
— James Haroden (@Itamar1710) January 4, 2019
Harden headed to the locker room around the 4-minute mark, and during that time the Warriors steadily built their lead to 10. The Rockets had all sorts of fits trying to guard Looney, who had one of the best halves of his career, scoring 12 points for the night and having one of the better +/-s on the Warriors at an even 0. The Rockets’ paint defense was sorely lacking and continues to plague the team much like last season (although the Warriors are not great at defending the paint either, currently 16th in the league to the Rockets’ 26th).
In the second quarter, Klay Thompson began to heat up and finished the half with 19 points. Harden, seemingly looking to find his footing following that Looney hit to the jaw, was distributing the ball more frequently than usual. Chalk this up to the Warriors defense, which defended Harden as good as they could have, which forced the Beard to get his role players more involved. The problem was the shots of the Rockets’ supporting cast simply weren’t falling, while all of the Warriors’ were. At one point GSW’s shooting percentage was a blistering 75%. At the half, the score was 53 HOU, 70 GSW. Rockets faithful felt this game was simply out of reach.
And then the 3rd quarter happened.
Capela, who was a non-factor often during last year’s Western Conference Finals against the Warriors, was a terror in the paint. The high pick-and-rolls he and Harden have perfected over their four-plus years of working together were in full force. Harden, who had a relatively quiet 2nd quarter, began to heat up and scored 13 points in the 3rd. Slowly but surely, the Rockets started chipping away at the Warriors’ lead. The Rockets role players, who were quiet most of the first half, began to heat up. Harden, forced to get out of his ISO-comfort zone, began to show the Warriors just how good the team could be at ball movement, resulting in two critical back-to-back three-pointers from Austin Rivers, which shrunk GSW’s lead to 8 points:
— Hunter King (@hunterking1006) January 4, 2019
And yet every time the Rockets got close, the Warriors, with the sheer level of talent that comes from housing four All-Stars and two MVPs, kept their lead comfortable. Still, the Rockets began to smell blood going into the fourth quarter, with the game 98 GSW, 92 HOU.
Even with Harden out for the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Rockets were able to keep things close. Gerald Green continued to put up big-time shots and Brandon Knight, in a surprising sign of life, hit a huge 3-point shot to cut the lead to 98-100 at the 11-minute mark:
Brandon Knight just hit a 3 in the fourth quarter at Oracle to bring the #Rockets within 2. We are all witnesses.
— Ben DuBose (@BenDuBose) January 4, 2019
At the 8-minute mark, Harden checked back in, and it was go-time. For the remainder of the quarter, the game felt like a three-point shootout, with Harden putting up one more ridiculous shot after the other. There was a particular sequence in which, much to Curry’s chagrin, his missed three was subsequently answered with another Harden stepback-3 to cut the lead to 119 GSW, 116 HOU at the 50-second mark. Harden, never shying away from the big moments, hit ANOTHER three-pointer to tie the game at 119.
— Coach Billy Carson (@CoachCarson) January 4, 2019
Into overtime, Harden and Co. continued their blitz at Oracle, with Capela grabbing every board he could and hitting critical free throws (he was 5-5 for the night!). Capela was easily the Rockets’ second best player of the game, grabbing 21 of the Rockets’ 48 boards and scoring 29 points. With the game tied at 132 and with 33 seconds left, the refs gave a massive break to GSW:
ICYMI: The refs missed Kevin Durant stepping out of bounds, which helped give the Warriors a lead with 30 seconds left in OT last night 👀 pic.twitter.com/7Kpu8AjHmV
— ESPN (@espn) January 4, 2019
The missed call by the refs resulted in a Curry 2-pointer to give GSW the lead 134-132. Flashbacks to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals started playing in the Rockets faithful’s heads. Would the refs once again aid the Warriors in their victory over the good guys?
To which James Harden replied, “not this time”.
— Ben DuBose (@BenDuBose) January 4, 2019
The Rockets won, 135 to 134. Without CP3. Without Eric Gordon. Against a fully healthy Golden State Warriors team. At Oracle. Harden would end with a blistering 44 points (10 3PMs made), 15 assists and 10 rebounds and continues to average video-game numbers over the Rockets 10-1 streak:
James Harden over his last 12 games:
64.0 true shooting percentage
Rockets are 11-1, went from the 14-seed to the 4-seed
Legendary run by Harden. Saved Houston’s season and making a run at a second MVP. Unbelievable. pic.twitter.com/PqB5MzCMck
— Kevin O’Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) January 4, 2019
It was a statement win for sure and represented the best iteration of James Harden NBA fans have ever seen.
The Rockets are back and now have a 2-0 lead over the Warriors during the regular season. On to Portland.