This game really mattered. After a run of games with Howard and Beverley hurt, the Rockets hold on the 4th seed was slipping. They were 5 and 5 in their last ten and their momentum late in the season seemed to be slipping away. It wasn’t looking good for Houston for most of the game. The Pelicans were playing without seven players tonight, but they led most of the game and were up by 11 with 9:20 left on the clock. That’s when the Rockets woke up. Desperate to get something going (and with Parsons out with hip and wrist ailments) McHale went with a line up of Harden, Lin, Beverley, Daniels and Howard. That was the line up that finished the game on a 15 to 0 run to close it out.
This game was important. McHale had mentioned that Howard and Beverley were going to get 20 minutes. Howard played 29 and Beverley played 33 and they were the difference. Beverley is the true heart of this team and having him back on the floor changes the intensity level of the rest of the Rockets. After missing 8 games, the Red Bull hit 4 threes and had 14 points in the 4th quarter. His back to back 3’s with two minutes left were mercurial.
Of course Rockets fans shouldn’t get too excited. Their defense has been abysmal of late. In the previous five games, the Rockets have given up an average of 124 points a game. That improved somewhat tonight with Howard and Beverley back. But, after giving up a 39 point second quarter to New Orleans, I was toying with titling a losing headline, “Are the Rockets the new Pacers?” Ultimately, with the game on the line in the 4th quarter, the Rockets shut it down. Lin had two giant late game steals and Howard had a critical block in crunch time.
If the Rockets don’t plug some of the defensive issues, it will spell trouble in the playoffs. This last stretch of games has seen the Rockets sleepwalking on defense. I’ve been worried if the extended minutes that Harden and Parsons have been playing were evident in the teams lack of hustle. Harden has played the 5th most minutes per game in the league at 38 and Parsons is 7th at 37.6 minutes per game. How much will they have left in the tank in the playoffs?
One of the biggest issues seems to be weak side help, with T Jones and D Mo still working on that facet of their young games. While both players have gotten better at on ball defense, they are often slow to rotate. Defensive rebounding has also been an issue during these rotations. Another element of late has been the lack of getting back and stopping the fast break. That LA game, Brewer’s performance, and the second quarter tonight have been difficult to watch. The defense that was so circumspect over the beginning of the year has been back.
Troy Daniels insertion was interesting and fun to watch. Though he only shot 1 for 5, Daniels was a +19 for the game and his hustle sparked the Rockets and got them moving. Earlier in the day, he had played 44 minutes and scored 30 points in a D League game with the Vipers. Daniels then hopped on a plane and played an impressive 13 minutes. With Parsons out and neither Hamilton nor Casspi getting it done, it was a great call by McHale.
Howard looked pretty sharp in his comeback game. He got 13 points, had a Rockets best +/- of +21 and held down the middle when it mattered at the end of the game. Hopefully his ankle will look good after tonight and he’ll be right back in the thick of things, available to play at the high level he’s been at all year.
Enough can’t be said about Harden! His most impressive stat tonight was 13 assists to go along with his 33 points. He played a grinding amount of minutes again tonight (43) and has been our Cal Ripken Iron Man. Other free agents have got to be looking at playing with him next year. This guy is a beast night in, night out.
The Rockets have been sleepwalking the last 10 games and tonight was similar. It’s like they only wake up when they have to. A lot of pundits have been downplaying the significance of the last stretch of games, but home court and momentum has been at stake. This game could prove huge if Houston can clinch home court and the first round goes to seven games! I know the energy level will rise for the playoffs. It already has with Beverley being back. Is this Houston team ready to go to the second round, or further?