If the Rockets had been anything other than exhaustingly, embarrassingly bad Tuesday night they would have come away with a win. The New Orleans Pelicans played without Julius Randle, Nikola Mirotic, Elfrid Payton, or Anthony Davis in Houston and left with a 121-116 victory over the most healthy Rockets’ squad we’ve seen in more than a month.
If James Harden had been anything other than utterly, unbearably bad Houston would have won. The Pelicans started Jahlil Okafor at center tonight, a player whose interior defense might as well be interior decorating, but Harden had trouble even getting that far as Pelicans’ perimeter defenders forced Harden to take brutal, looping paths to the basket that gave even the chelonian Okafor time to get in to position. Harden struggled from three as well, hoisting shot after shot without even the pretense of driving. Jrue Holiday and others were able to play on their toes, contesting Harden’s shot in a way nobody has been able to all season. The Beard went on a late run to extend his 30-point scoring streak and bring his field goal percentage from the low twenties to the low thirties (hurrah!), but still he finished with one of his worst nights of the year, scoring 37 points on 32 shots.
If Houston’s role players had shot anything other than pathetically, putridly bad Tuesday night Houston would have won. Every time Harden tried to force a switch or get the pick and roll going New Orleans would bring the double team, forcing Harden to pass to whoever happened to be open at the time. Really the whole game the Pelicans treated PJ Tucker, Eric Gordon and co. as if they were Harden’s imaginary friends and he was, in reality, playing one on five and throwing the ball out-of-bounds every other possession. He might as well have been, as Tucker, Gordon, Rivers, and Paul shot a combined 9 of 32 from three, mostly on open looks.
Despite all their struggles the Rockets had a chance to win at the end. Some good defensive plays and a bad over and back call late gave the Rockets all they should have needed to get back in the game. But Tucker, Gordon, and Ennis missed back to back to back wide-open threes to cut the lead to six with under two minutes to go and Gordon traveled with the same opportunity on the very next play. Then, after a couple lay-ups and a Harden three cut the lead to four and Kenrich Williams missed two free throws with 26 seconds left to give Houston a chance, Harden dribbled the ball to the right-hand corner, picked it up, and shuffled out of bounds on what looked like minimal contact. There was no call. That was game.
It was a tough loss not just because the Rockets are in the middle of the tightest playoff race in NBA history, but because it will, in the minds of the deranged, affirm all the stupid arguments out there about Houston: Harden’s a volume shooter, you can’t win shooting so many threes, the Rockets can’t play defense, ect. And play-by-play man, sexual-harasser, and consensus worst-GM-of-all-time Isiah Thomas spoke truth to truthers Tuesday night, calling on the Rockets to move to the midrange and lauding the potential of the Pelican’s post-centric offense in today’s NBA. He was a couple drinks and an overtime away from suggesting we sign Eddie Curry to a super-max.
Sometimes it’s tough to play the sane-man on behalf of the Rockets.
They fell to 29-21 on the season and will next play in Denver at 9 pm on Friday.