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.