No big deal here, it was just the most exciting and meaningful Rockets win of the season. LeBron James and his Cavaliers super team just happened to swing by and deliver the most intense and scrappy battle Houston has seen this year, and James Harden just happened to deliver item number seven thousand in his ever-growing MVP resume. It was pure coincidence that this game went to overtime, giving the world five more minutes to watch two of the best players in the world literally struggle against one another. And, somehow, in the end, the game came down to free throw shooting, but not in the way you might think.

This was a fun, tight, exciting game throughout the first half, with neither team gaining a double digit lead. And then the third quarter started, and Patrick Beverley tried to take a charge against LeBron James. That it was eventually called as a blocking foul was immaterial. The ensuing scuffle, however, set a tone that would persist throughout the remainder of the game. As LeBron James fell to the floor, he placed his hand on Beverley’s chest, something which Patrick seemed to take objection to. A shouting match upgraded to some kind of mass scuffle, and double techs were issued. The game was back on.

And then things got intense.

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Screenshot 2015-03-01 10.47.06

Five games in seven nights, including three in a row against three of the strongest finals contenders in the league.  The East’s representative in late May will surely be one of Cleveland or Atlanta.  Take note that the game against Cleveland today will begin at 2:30, rather than the 6PM listed originally on the Rockets’ web site, as it was picked up by ABC.

The Cavs will be without Kyrie Irving, but are just as dangerous, with Lebron James on a mission.  After his performance last week against the Warriors, one can expect James to take similar aim at the Rockets’ James Harden.

That Tuesday/Wednesday back to back will be murderous, and Houston would have to feel good about even getting a split.  And then, with a back to back against Detroit and Denver, in games you would expect the team to win, the fear is that the exhaustion from the week will reflect in the results.

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Having now gone 7-3 in their last ten, and winning four straight, the Rockets have put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack, a feat truly remarkable considering their injury status.  Houston could even conceivably catch Memphis, with just two games separating the teams.  But they’ll have to get through this week first, and that will truly be a test.

in from the editor

I have made it clear in past recaps and roundtables that I have real issues with certain aspects of this Rockets squad – their three-point shooting is not strong enough and they do not have enough size without Howard among other concerns. Even though Houston has the rarest and most important part of a championship team, a true MVP candidate, their flaws will likely prevent them from winning the championship this year. Nevertheless, I remain irritated that the Rockets continue to be overlooked as a championship team for reasons beyond said flaws. Even the Spurs, a team that has never looked this bad in the Duncan era, are given more credibility. The reason seems to be nothing more than a shallow declaration of how the Rockets are soft and Harden does not have “it” – just like Dirk did not have “it” before 2011 and LeBron before 2012.

Well, maybe winning 40 games before losing 20, Phil Jackson’s mark on what makes a contender, will change the tone. Only the Hawks, Warriors, and Grizzlies have accomplished the same, while Portland could at the time of this writing. And if that was not good enough, the Rockets did not have to ask Harden to shoulder everything tonight. The Beard was not the scoring machine that he usually is due to his sprained ankle, but Houston still prevailed over an inferior Brooklyn with a true team effort.

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Lineup data to this point

After seeing Houston pull away last night to start the fourth, my hypothesis was that the Rockets’ offense is at its best with Corey Brewer in the lineup.  I set’s parameters to a minimum of 10 games played together, and found that the top Rockets quintet is Ariza/Harden/Motiejunas/Smith/Terry, with an offensive rating of 143 in 23 minutes together.  For lineups that have played at least 35 minutes together, the top quintet is Brewer/Harden/Motiejunas/Smith/Terry with an offensive rating of 127 in 36 minutes.  The common theme there is that the team seems to be at its best offensively with Motiejunas/Smith/Terry/Harden and a wing.

Strangely, defensively, for lineups that had played at least 35 minutes together, the stingiest unit was Ariza/Brewer/Jones/Smith/Terry with a defensive rating of 72.9 in 40 minutes of shared court time.  For lineups that have played 10 games together, the stingiest unit is Ariza/Brewer/Motiejunas/Smith/Terry with a defensive rating of 74.8 in 37 minutes player together.

Interesting to note above the glaring omissions of Patrick Beverley and Dwight Howard.  And in Howard’s case, its not that he hasn’t played enough to qualify for the parameters – he can be found in some of the later units.

Obviously, small sample size alert.  And a lot is lost in the numbers.  But some of the combinations seem to meet the eye test.  Once a sufficiently sizable sample accumulates, I’m very curious to see how lineups with Terrence Jones fare in general to the other combinations.

in musings

James Harden might not have dropped a monster game on the Clippers, but he got something even more important: the second win against his hometown Clippers in his tenure with the Rockets. Even as the clock ran down and the Rockets led by double digits, Los Angeles refused to submit, coming back to within four as Houston escaped with a precious victory. The turning point of a close game was a breakout run by the Rockets bench in the fourth quarter, creating a gap that was just too wide for the Clippers to overcome. Even when Harden is struggling, even when Dwight Howard is missing, even against a team that seems to have their number, the Rockets were able to put it together for a national audience.

As heartening as this victory was for the team, there are still causes for concern. The Clippers were also without Blake Griffin, and the Rockets still seem to have no answer for J.J. Redick. Houston was lucky that he only did 15 points worth of damage given that he shot 50% from deep (and overall). Chris Paul will always get his, and DeAndre Jordan’s demolition should be curtailed somewhat when Dwight Howard returns, but Redick is a savvy player without the ball and a ruthless shooter when he does touch it. It’s good to know that the Rockets are physically able to beat the Clippers, but they still would be a tough out in the post season. And, of course, they’re currently slated to be Houston’s first round opponent, because the Western Conference can never stop being ridiculous.

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