In a way, this is a game we should have lost.
The Houston Rockets are a young team. Young teams commit mistakes. Teams that suffer a high roster turnover, that need to adjust to the habits of idiosyncrasies of one another, commit mistakes. And in basketball, a sport where maybe 5 possessions out of 100 can swing the outcome of a game, teams cannot afford to make lots of mistakes.
And the Rockets made mistakes. They turned over the ball through several lazy passes and finished with an unacceptable total of 21. They took shots they should not have. They missed shots they should have made. Against a team that is widely expected to go into the playoffs this offseason even after losing their best wing player, these mistakes can cost you a game.
For a while, it looked like it would. The Rockets led by 16 at the 6:35 mark, thanks to good rebounding, Harden being Harden, and Josh Smith being Josh Smith. But the Hawks came back. They used a large lineup with Zaza Pachulia at 5, Horford at the 4, and Smith at the 3, and began to play defense and punish the Rockets both inside and with good shooting from Stevenson and Lou Williams. Houston led by 7 by the end of the 3rd quarter, but there was reason to not feel confident. Lin had played the entire quarter. Could a lead of 7 survive with Toney Douglas at the helm?
Somehow, it did, but no thanks to Douglas. When Lin entered the game, the Rockets led 87-82. But Josh Smith took charge and Atlanta went on an 8-0 to take the lead at the seven minute mark to take the lead for the first time since the first quarter. You could feel the game slipping away. A 19-point turnaround, and the Atlanta crowd for once woke up and began to cheer.
The old Rockets would have collapsed. The old Rockets would have let the slip away. But the old Rockets didn’t have James Harden.
He took over in a way that the Rockets have not seen since the shooting guard he should have been rightly compared to (not Joe Johnson) was forced to shoulder an Orlando team by himself. Aside from a Patterson 3-pointer to tie the game (yes, you read that right) and a critical Chandler Parsons 3, every point from that point on belonged to Harden. At one point, he drove to the basket, and was fouled while he made the basket. He missed the extra free throw, but the Rockets secured the rebound, gave it to Harden, and he once again drove to the lane and got fouled while making the layup. This time, he made the shot.
You will likely read further accolades outside from myself, but they have to be said. A career high of 45 points on 19 shots, 7 rebounds, 2 assists. In some way, this game was worse than his game against the Pistons – he did have 5 turnovers and at least two of them were due to sloppy passes, one of which was across the court. But when one can say that “this game was worse”, you know that you’ve got a legitimate superstar. One, who when a young team begins to falter in the onslaught of a supposed playoff team, can carry the team.
Some further thoughts as well:
- I often ponder to what degree NBA 2k influences our perception about players. While Terrence Williams, who plays like Lebron James on steroids in the virtual world, may be example number one, Josh Smith should perhaps serve as another good example of a player who is far better in video games, not least because a video game naturally cannot truly account for the mindset of the NBA players due to the consumer’s desire to actually control them. As the current Rockets squad is not a contending team for now, people have pondered about which elite players who Morey could obtain to launch it into that rarified leap. Smith is a frequent candidate due to his upcoming free agency and the max cap room possessed by the Rockets, but this game showcased both his potential and his problems. As aforementioned, the Hawks frequently played Smith at the 3 tonight, leaving him to be guarded by the much smaller Carlos Delfino. However, possessions where the Hawks actually tried to exploit Smith’s major physical advantages were non-existent in the second quarter and scattered throughout the third. Smith ultimately seems to continue to prefer playing on the perimeter, and while that style may gain accolades and highlights, it is almost certainly through banging inside that he will obtain wins. Lebron James, another physical player of similar build, certainly demonstrated it this past summer.
- As mentioned earlier, the Rockets demonstrated significant turnover problems tonight. While the first instinct might be to blame Lin given his reputation, he played very well tonight, though he will be shadowed by Harden’s masterpiece. 3 turnovers to 7 assists could use some work, but he contributed 21 points, drove relentlessly, and was a force on the rebounds, a highly underrated aspect of his game given his size and surprising athleticism. Lin may hardly be the leader of this team like he was supposed to be when we signed him, but he has already demonstrated that he can work very well with Harden, as he dished a few dunks to him when he cut. Beardsanity is alive.
- Patrick Patterson started tonight. He seemed to be somewhat limited tonight as his injury might not have fully recovered, but he played good post defense on Smith ( assisted by Asik, who had one of the odder statlines I’ve ever seen with 19 rebounds and 0-7 shooting) and seemed to regain his shooting touch to an extent. While many Rockets fans are irritated with Morris, he also played well, though he did spend far too much time camping on the 3 point line during the game.
One good game can be attributed to chance. Two can be a coincidence. Hopefully tomorrow, Harden will completely and totally close the book on the now dying argument that he is no longer a star.