A healthy, rolling Houston Rockets team took on the tanking Phoenix Suns without Devin Booker or DeAndre Ayton, and the results were predictable.
Teams have been trying all sorts of ways to slow down Harden, and the Suns started and continued with a highly aggressive double team which seemed more interested in containing Harden than winning the game. Harden took what the Suns had to offer him. There were multiple plays throughout the game where Harden would pass out of the double team to Capela, Capela would pass to whoever was wide open, and Eric Gordon or Danuel House or P.J. Tucker would take the easy three-pointer.
The Rockets jumped to an early 27-13 lead, and the rest of the game was not in doubt. Jamaal Crawford made things interesting in the late first and early second on his way to 27 points on 9-17 shooting, and the Suns came as close as 39-31. But after that, Harden started scoring as he beat the double team to drive into the rim, and more Rockets hit threes. Houston led 77-47 at the half.
The game was over at that point, and then Harden decided to actually score for himself to finish things off late in the 3rd. He had 16 points in that quarter, finished with 30 in the night despite the Suns’ obsessive focus on him, and sat out for the rest of the fourth. After the horrid scandal of the Rockets players leaving the bench to go lift weights on Friday, the Rockets starters did watch the rest of the game though Chris Paul appeared to head for the locker for a short stint at the beginning of the quarter.
The only relevant part of the fourth quarter was watching the Rockets chase the NBA record for made threes after tying it at 26 for what feels like a dozen games this season. Gary Clark hit the 26th three with three minutes left in the game, and then there were about five three-point attempts, some of which were good shots, which all clanked. But with a little over a minute left in the game, Austin Rivers of all players took an iso-stepback three which went in.
27 made threes, a new NBA record. 149 points in a game, a season high for the Rockets. An easy, simple win which was highlighted by good passing, Harden’s brilliance, and the Rockets not messing around against an inferior team.
Key Player: Eric Gordon
Salman Ali noted that Eric Gordon is back to practically the same percentage from 3 compared to last season, which is notable given how awful he was to start the season. Gordon made 8 three-pointers on his way to 26 points, and these were smooth shots. I don’t think any of them even hit the rim.
Clyde Drexler in one of his usual Clyde moments declared that when Gordon is on, the Rockets are unbeatable. More realistic fans know that is not the case, but Gordon is critical if Houston is to have any hope of beating the Rockets. It is great for him to be playing like this at the key moment, but Gordon is such a feast or famine player. Rockets fans have to hope that coin lands heads in the Western Conference Finals
What is Next?
Despite all that the Rockets have accomplished by bouncing back, their final game against the Oklahoma City Thunder will be their most important game of the season. If the Portland Trail Blazers win out (though they are losing to the Denver Nuggets at the time of writing), a loss will put the Rockets in the four seed and a second-round match up with the Warriors instead of the much easier Nuggets. And the Rockets want to keep any hopes they have of grabbing the second seed alive, if for nothing else than to improve Harden’s MVP chances.
Tune in 8:30 CST, possibly on TNT. This game is going to be crazy.