James Harden and Russell Westbrook met at high noon to settle it once and for all. Two men, two teams, two playoff hunts stared each other down in Oklahoma and took their shot at each other. When the sun set on their showdown, both men had given it all, but only one would take away a win. James Harden’s Rockets carried the day, even while Westbrook notched yet another triple double. There was no crushing victory for either man or either team, as the Thunder stayed close all game and very nearly snatched a victory while James Harden sat, fouled out. There was only a knock-down, drag-out fight that the Rockets wearily weathered. And we still don’t know which man is the hero of this western.

Westbrook’s line is a nightmare for his opponents: today he racked up 40 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists in his 11th triple double of the season. The Thunder are desperate for wins at this point, and Westbrook is keeping the ship afloat almost single-handedly while Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant watch from the sidelines. Thunder GM Sam Presti has done a fantastic job surrounding Westbrook with talent and depth, but that can only go so far. Today, the Houston Rockets pushed the Thunder just past their breaking point, with James Harden as the tip of that spear.

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Trevor Ariza: The Time is Now


At this late stage in the season, teams’ identities are more or less known. No one really expects many surprises to occur before the playoffs begin. Of course, outside of the few front runners, every other playoff team is actually hoping that surprises will occur. That is the only chance that non-favorites have of surpassing expectations. This means that, barring unfortunate injuries, the script that most teams hope will be written is that an underused or underachieving player catches lightning in a bottle and proceeds to disrupt predictions.

On the Houston Rockets, the list of these candidates is slim. While James Harden is certainly the most important player, it’s a bit greedy, and probably unrealistic, to hope that he plays even more out of his skull than he currently is. Due to injuries, some might say that Dwight Howard has a chance to change the course of the playoffs a bit, but I think this blog has already beaten to death where Dwight’s ceiling is (probably behind him) and what he takes off the table (0.76 PPP on post ups) when he’s in the game. Instead, I propose that the Rockets’ potential difference maker is Trevor Ariza. Out of all the players that will receive significant playing time in the playoffs, he is the one whose ceiling is probably furthest away from what we’ve seen this regular season.

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James Harden is a basketball god.

But we have to remember that as much as we may gnash our teeth when he is out, and as much as we count how many minutes he sits and hope that the Rockets can survive without Harden for just a few more minutes, he is not winning these games by himself. Basketball is a team game, and tonight the Houston team got together to beat the most vulnerable of the Western Conference contenders.

And how did they do that? With one of the best defenses in the league. The Rockets from Brewer to Smith to Jones all played defense. The Mavericks have only three players on their team who can – Rondo, Chandler, and Al-Farouq Aminu. And while those players are not offensively reliable, Dallas’s offensive players in Dirk and Amare are not defensively reliable.

The Houston Rockets have two-way players. The Mavericks do not. That made the difference in the fourth quarter and the game.

The main two-way saviors were the headband brothers of Brewer and Josh Smith. I am still slow to come around on Smith, as there are issues with his play (namely, his passing) which I find tremendously frustrating to watch. But Smith hit all five of his free throws and played good defense on Dirk and the weakside. Yes, Dirk scored 21 points on 11 shots. But those came from jump shots and not the post. And it was in the post where Dirk became truly dangerous and led his team to a championship.

Brewer on the other hand was a speed demon who revitalized the Houston offense. Dallas does not have the athleticism to play transition defense in general, and Brewer raced up and down the court scoring bucket after bucket. Brewer did miss his only attempted three-pointer tonight, but his relentless energy gave the tired Rockets a huge energy boost.

And there was the role of Dwight Howard on Houston’s defense tonight. Howard did not play many minutes in the fourth quarter, which was when Houston finally figured out Dallas’s transition attack. There was also a scary moment in the third quarter when Howard appeared to be limping, but he jumped for the alley-oop slam in the fourth quarter and appears to be fine.

Now for the bad news. There is no way the Rockets can afford to play either Joey Dorsey or Clint Capela in the playoffs when opposing teams are in the penalty. None. It does not matter how good Dorsey’s defense can be or how exciting Capela’s dunks are. You cannot play players who are shooting 28 and 0 percent respectively from the foul line in the playoffs (and yes, that is zero. Clint Capela has not hit a free throw this season). They will be hacked and sent to the foul line.

We saw this tonight. After Dallas got into the penalty, Rick Carlisle had both players hacked through the second quarter. Capela and Dorsey went 1 for 8 from the free throw line during that stretch. They also had at least one air ball during that stretch.

This may not matter in the playoffs when Motiejunas returns from his back injury. But remember that none of Houston’s big men are reliable foul shooters. For example, Josh Smith has hit 50 percent of his foul shots as a Rockets, which translates to 1 point per possession. Meanwhile, Houston averages about 1.06 points per possession this season. Will we see Popovich or Carlisle hack Smith as well?

There are six games left in the season, and tonight’s victory ensured that the Rockets will be no worse than the sixth seed. I do not particularly care whether Houston is in the second, third, or sixth seeds. But the fourth and fifth seeds are a different matter. Golden State is terrifying. In addition to their on-court dominance, they have managed to stay healthy while most of the West battles one injury or another, and I would not be surprised to see them blow everyone away ala last year’s Spurs or the 2001 Lakers. The later Houston can face them, the better.

In the end, Houston’s fate is in its hands. They may have a few hard games to finish out the season, but they can have the second seed in a season where no one expected them to rise this much. Now they just need to keep it up for six more games.

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Just two weeks after setting his career high with 50 points, James Harden did himself one better and dropped in 51 in the win against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.  It was the tenth 50-point game in Rockets history, as Harden added his name next to Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone and Hakeem the Dream as the only Rockets’ players to hit that mark twice, and the first to do it in the same season.

Harden was virtually un-guardable all night, scoring at will from all over the court.  [read more…]

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The Houston Rockets were the two seed in the Western Conference for just about twenty-four hours exactly. Rockets pulled back into a tie with Memphis for a few minutes, who holds the tiebreaker and more importantly then beat the Sacramento Kings to take back their half-game lead on the Rockets. The Western Conference is a cruel battlefield, where a severely undermanned squad on a back to back can’t afford a loss to a four seed out east. The reality of the Eastern Conference is exactly opposite: a three point victory on the back of DeMar DeRozan’s career high over a badly hobbled opponent is just what the doctor ordered to get things going again. The Rockets might only have held vice-court for a single day, but sometimes a single day makes all the difference.

The showdown of the game was DeRozan vs James Harden, and today Toronto came out ahead in that matchup. Harden shot 9-22 and hung the only 30 point performance of the season on Toronto’s defense with 31 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. He had it going in spurts, and got to the line 12 times, but wasn’t able to make it through the litany of defenders Toronto threw at him. DeMar DeRozan, on the other hand, took over in the absent Kyle Lowry’s stead and had a monster 42 point and 11 rebound night, including a game-clinching two right over Harden’s defense. DeRozan was in rare form, and if he plays like that every night, the Raptors are in great shape.

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