Rockets 119, Clippers 122: A battle of wills

After a close game, it can be hard to know who or what is to blame for a loss. Was it the missed last second shot or the missed free throws from the first quarter that deserves the slander? Is it turnovers, or not boxing out, or a missed assignment for the last guy in the rotation?

Russell Westbrook will likely have a few fingers pointed his way for an errant three point attempt in the final minute, but without his strong performance on both sides of the ball, it’s unlikely the Rockets would have been in position to steal this one. He finished with 22 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists. His 9 for 22 shooting leaves something to be desired, as does his 1 for 7 performance from three. But the eye test really told a different story. He closed out on shooters, pushed the pace relentlessly, and was easily as active as his nemesis, Patrick Beverly. By the way, if we’re looking for shots we wish Russell could take back, I would opt for the two transition layups that he whiffed.

The game was brushfire, with big leads for both teams in the first half, followed by a second half where neither team could really get a cushion. For some reason, this game felt like it had a ton of character as well as a cast of characters.

  • Kawhi did his whole Eeyore crossed with Michael Jordan shtick, hitting fade away jumpers and set shots with not discernible emotion or intensity whatsoever.
  • Paul George played tough defense on Harden, but Harden still got his*.
  • Patrick Beverly was in foul trouble throughout the whole game.
  • P.J. Tucker’s defense in this game likely took a years of his life as he continued to sacrifice his body with no regard for life or limb.
  • McLemore hit some threes (4 of 9) and played solid defense. He’s starting to look like a decent Gerald Green replacement.
  • Thabo Sefolosha played hard defense and hit a few timely shots—definitely played within himself.
  • Capela did not continue his streak of games with 20 rebounds, falling just one short in his 40 minutes of action. But, streak or no, he had a monster game. If he continues this type of production, the Rockets are going to be alright.

*In case it isn’t clear, “his” with respect to Harden means a bananas-in-pajamas-crazy game that you might tell your grandchildren about if it weren’t so commonplace by now. He finished with 37 points on only 16 (SIXTEEN!) shots, shooting over 50 percent from the field, 5 of 11 from 3, 14 free throws, 12 assists and 8 rebounds. He also played legitimate defense in the post and tried his best to close out on shooters. I would say the Rockets wasted a special performance from their star, but as you know, Harden has a way of make special look mundane. And he did all of this against waves of double teams that included Pat Bev, Kawhi, and Paul George. Bananarama.

Ultimately, it came down to who could sustain the back and forth long enough. With only a minute or so left, the Rockets had taken a lead, and you could see them let up. Next play, a Paul George corner three. After that, Lou Williams hits another. From that point on, the Clippers out hustled the Rockets and the game leaned their way. If pundits tell you that Westbrook shot the Rockets out of this one, they likely have the stats to back it up. But before he ever took that last shot, he had willed them into the game in the first place.

The Eye Test

Today’s Eye Test is looking at a common theme in Rocket’s media coverage: how do teams defend Harden? Doc Rivers (who didn’t get a tech tonight despite his son’s lobbying the refs) sent two defenders at the ball whenever Harden had it. As seen in Harden’s stat line, it was not particularly effective. What was most encouraging was actually Westbrook’s response to Harden getting trapped. He repeatedly got a head of steam and cut through the lane, making himself an easy target for Harden. Westbrook then attacked the basket or kicked it out to the corners. It was lightning quick, seamless, and smooth. The sort of plays I envisioned when I first heard that Russell was on his way to the H. Doris Burke called the game, and at one point she mentioned that both the Clippers and Rockets had lots of time left to round into form. She’s right, of course, and tonight, despite the loss, the Rockets moved just a bit closer to their basketball ceiling.

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