There would be no tale of two halves for the Houston Rockets (26-20) versus the Philadelphia 76ers (31-17) tonight. The second half magic James Harden and co. used to rally against the Los Angeles Lakers this past Saturday was nowhere to be found as a bad start gave way to a woefully spiritless finish following the halftime break.
As the third quarter clock ticked away, the Rockets failed to trim the 76ers lead, instead allowing it to balloon to as much as 30, as the away team failed to record a field goal until nearly eight minutes into the period. By then, the final result was an inevitability. Whether the team was frustrated by officiating or their own unsuccessful offense, the Rockets failed to get into any rhythm after a mostly competitive first quarter.
When Clint Capela joined Chris Paul on the sidelines after a failed lob attempt against the Orlando Magic on January 13, this was the scenario fans of the team feared. In the games following that ill-timed injury, Harden simply put even more of the burden on his broad shoulders and dropped 57, 58 and 48 in consecutive games, taking his superhuman play to a reality warping level.
However, even in that three game stretch, the bearded one enjoyed help in the form of great complimentary shooting by guys like the recently returned Eric Gordon, the never shy Gerald Green and Mr. Found Money Austin Rivers.
Tonight those three went 4-26 from the field, rendering Harden’s 37-point performance, his 20th straight 30-point game, largely meaningless. While it’s been fun to keep count of the reigning MVP’s numbers as they rise past our ozone layer, against good teams 35, 45, 55 or even 65 points just isn’t enough on its own.
Without the spot-up shooters hitting their looks, the margin for error against a good team like the 76ers is essentially less than zero.
Without Capela’s interior defense, Joel Embiid victimized anyone on the Rockets willing to take a stab at guarding him, putting up 32 points and 14 rebounds in 27 minutes. Nene proved too slow and everyone else was simply outmatched physically by the gargantuan Embiid.
Ben Simmons, the other Philadelphia star available (Jimmy Butler was out with a sore wrist), was held in check by PJ Tucker and PJ Tucker’s shoes, as the non-shooter posted an uneventful line of 9 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds, on 3-12 shooting.
Before the game got out of hand, it was fun to see Tucker play the role of rover as he sagged off Simmons to chorale unsuspecting ball handlers. When the forward is tasked with guarding centers and larger bigs, it’s easy to forget how incredible he is at essentially clogging the paint and passing lanes as a help defender on the wing off-ball.
Corey Brewer, with his flailing defensive effort, and the steady TJ McConnell played good games within their roles for the 76ers, as each scored in double figures and took turns trying to irritate Harden.
The next contest against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden will provide Harden the chance to wow fans in the most famous sports arena on earth, and will also give the team an opportunity to bounce back against a lesser opponent. Despite the Knicks’ lack of talent, the Rockets can’t afford games where the players around the Beard go silent, especially while they’re still waiting on Paul and Capela to get right.