In what might have been a basketball game scripted by the writers of Stranger Things, the Houston Rockets (28-20) outlasted the Toronto Raptors (36-15) in a game that maximized the limits of ebb and flow.
I guess we should start with the beginning: the Rockets we have grown accustomed to over the past few weeks, you know the ones that live and die on James Harden scoring 80 percent of the points (all numbers approximate), weren’t the ones that played most of the first half. No, instead we were greeted to the Bizarro Rockets, a team that could suddenly rebound, defend and swing the ball around in superb fashion. Up WAS Down. Left WAS Right. Black WAS White. Day WAS Night.
On a real note, a lot of this was a predictable regression to the mean. Austin Rivers, who had only scored 9 points in the three previous games, was due for a fun night; he finished with 13 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists. GQ’s favorite Rocket, PJ Tucker, who treated a late inbound pass against the Knicks as if it were a pooch punt in a football game, and who was allergic to hitting open shots had his best game in weeks, contributing 18 points and 4 steals. He did all this while pestering the hell out of Kawhi Leonard (who still finished with 32 points because he’s freaking good.)
The leader of the Bizarro Rockets was the team’s most recent pickup Kenneth Faried. The Manimal finally looked like the Team USA/Denver Nuggets iteration, as he repeatedly made the Raptors pay when they crowded the Beard on his forays to the rim, tallying an electric 21 points and 14 rebounds.
Unfortunately the hot start was unsustainable, as the Raptors began to chip away by making shots and picking up the pace, racing down the court after misses and makes. A 22-point lead four minutes into the second quarter quickly became much tighter.
The Rockets enjoyed a 9-point cushion after the break and it didn’t shift much in the period. Each team went on mini-runs and it was here that Harden began to get into his rhythm after a quiet first half. The Raptors did an excellent job guarding him for the most part, as former Spurs nemesis Danny Green did most of the heavy lifting, picking him up full-court, shading him right and pawing without fouling. Other guys like Leonard, Norman Powell and even Pascal Siakam also took turns, forcing him into an uneven night from the field.
Despite all the wing depth the Drakes enjoy, The Beard was still able to get off floaters and a few step backs throughout the third to lead the team into the fourth. He finished the night with his 22nd straight 30-plus point performance, rounding out the night with 35 points on 9-22 shooting.
The fourth quarter got off to a raucous start for the home team, as the Rockets again raced to a 16-point lead with about six minutes remaining. Despite the energy of Faried, the Rockets went cold at the absolute worst possible time.
And then wackiness ensued…
The Gordon miss at 20 seconds to go was especially puzzling as the team had a lead and 18 seconds remaining on the shot clock. To be fair, Gordon was having an exceptional night and he thought he was fouled, but after the Nets comeback a little more than a week ago and the aforementioned PJ Tucker inbound turnover – Rockets fans were likely not enjoying that particular dose of deja vu.
With that all said, the Rockets won, on a Harden defensive stop! They beat one of the best teams in the league without Chris Paul, without Clint Capela and without a crazy offensive explosion by Harden. Outside of the Warriors win in Oracle on January 3, this may have been the most impressive victory to date for the team. No, there wasn’t any Harden heroics and they almost fumbled it away, but Houston prevailed with a tremendous effort against a great team.
Oh and don’t look now, but Paul’s return is a high possibility for the next one, this Sunday at home against Orland Magic.