This heartbreaking loss for the Rockets was the most encouraging game of the young season. Moral victories may not exist, not really, but this is about as close as it’s possible to get. Despite falling back under .500, the Rockets looked like a viable NBA team. They took an admittedly tired world champion Miami Heat team to the very edge, and came about as close to winning as you can get. If LeBron wasn’t head and shoulders the best player in the world, and if the last two Rockets plays weren’t unmitigated disasters, they could have done it.
Those last two plays need some examination. If this had happened in a playoff game, those two plays would have etched themselves into the waking nightmares of Rockets fans for years. The first play was executed well, with the Rockets using good corner-and-back ball movement to pull two defenders away from Lin, who was wide open behind the arc with a chance to hit a game-winning shot. He failed to hit any part of the basket. If this was his only airball of the night, it could be chalked up to a fluke, or at least nerves. Unfortunately, he shot a three earlier in the game that was so far past the hoop that the announcers and myself actually wondered for a moment if it was a pass to Asik.
The last play of the game took two timeouts to draw up, and consisted of James Harden dribbling out 5 of the 7 game seconds left, then throwing up a prayer three in front of LeBron James. The previous failure was one of shot execution, which is simply a reality of the game. But a failure to move the ball, or even move off the ball is a very different matter. Interim head coach Kelvin Sampson did well to that point for the Rockets, so it seems unlikely this is the play as he drew it up. What exactly fell apart in the last two possessions can be painfully dissected at length, including the bizarre free throw debacle in between. Dwyane Wade missed two free throws, but three Rockets were unable to prevent Chris Bosh from grabbing the rebound and hitting his own two free throws.
The beginning of the game was even worse, in fact, with the Heat getting out to a 20-5 run early.The game looked to be taking a permanent nose dive when the Rockets bench came in, led by Marcus Morris. Morris had by far the best game of his career, getting 8 points on 3-4 shooting, and making 2 out of 3 from downtown. He grabbed a respectable 5 boards and more importantly played competent defense on LeBron James. When he fouled out late in the 4th, a significant spark left the best bench performance for Houston this season.
Delfino, the usual sixth man, recorded only 2-7 from deep and 1-3 otherwise. Those two threes were both critical, but his late defense of LeBron James was insufficient. Toney Douglas shot 1-2 and had twice as many assists (4) as turnovers (2), which is an improvement. Jones came in for about thirty seconds and had a completely empty line.
The true Rockets hero of the evening was without a doubt Omer Asik, who seems increasingly likely to average a double double this year. Tonight he hit half of his shots (4-8) and knocked down an impressive 11 out of 14 free throws for a career high 19 points. His pile of rebounds (14) is amazing in that that’s starting to look par for the course for him. Given the Heat’s predilection to use Bosh at center, this was an offensive opportunity for him due to size. He capitalized well, receiving the ball near the hoop or with an open drive to it. The Heat were forced to foul him repeatedly, and he made them pay for it. The biggest confusion was that he sat so late in the fourth quarter, as the Rockets’ 7-point lead evaporated. LeBron James was a supernova late in the game, hitting anything and everything, and Asik could have made a difference on both sides of the ball.
Patterson and Parsons were also huge contributors to the 33 point second and third quarters. Parsons seems to thrive off of brutal defensive assignments, and this was no exception. His defense on James was solid when it wasn’t great, and his confidence and shot were the highest of the year. He shot the lights out from behind the arc, hitting 5 of 10. He ended the evening 8-17 and with a team-high 25 points and a couple of steals to boot. He was everywhere at once, and he led the bench unit like a veteran.
Patrick Patterson notched 22 points himself, playing very aggressively throughout. He looks increasingly comfortable in his game, and not only hit some crucial jumpers, but cleaned up a few messes to come out with 8-14 shooting and 9 rebounds. He’s looking increasingly like a starter, despite the fact that he’s at one of the toughest positions in the league. Even his post game is starting to look like a post game and not a disaster, and for that I applaud him. If he can settle down and develop a serviceable post game and three point shot, he’ll have a long career.
Harden had another good but not amazing night, probably due to the immensely capable Miami defense coming to bear on him primarily. Harden was double teamed on a regular basis, but he managed to only cough the ball up twice on the night. In fact, after 10 turnovers in the first half, the Rockets managed only one more, breaking a series of games where they hovered around 20 a game. Harden remained aggressive throughout, and was rewarded with 11 free throws for his efforts. 22 points on 17 shots is really quite good, and it says a lot about his game that this is how he’s consistently looked against strong defenses played against him. His 3 rebounds, 5 assists, a steal and a block rounded out a solid performance.
Lin was the only starter not to notch double digit points, with 9 points on 3-8 shooting. Being target number two for the gnashing teeth of Miami’s defense didn’t help him at all, but he got 6 assists and only gave up the ball twice. While this isn’t Linsanity, he’s still well in the realm of starting point guards, and once he gets his shot straight, the whole team will be much better. The primary example of that is, of course, that missed three that could have won the game.
Overall, the Rockets looked like a decent team that held their own against an exceptional one. After being held to 6 points in the first half, LeBron James became a supernatural force in the second half, finishing with a game-high 38. If it weren’t for this explosion, complete with a contested shot a few feet behind the arc, the Rockets would be 4-3, not 3-4. They have yet to lose a game that wasn’t within their grasp, and they’re starting to look better every game. It’s always painful to lose a close game, but the silver lining on this cloud is particularly bright. They’re getting there.