Houston Rockets 138, Los Angeles Lakers 134: Exorcising the ghost of losses past

So this game was mostly about shaking the memory of Spencer Dinwiddie’s fourth quarter explosion from Wednesday night. The Rockets were down big at the half and battled back to within three with five seconds left in regulation. Rockets Twitter PTSD flared up in the fourth, with each questionable call by Tony Brothers sending a cascade of grumpy “this is why we can’t have nice things” terror through the twittersphere. Despite never leading in regulation, the Rockets’ full team effort and Harden’s brilliance came through. Oh, we of little faith.

As is the norm now, Harden left his mark all over this game. In the first half, his reputation alone led the Lakers to pull defensive schemes that are more at home in a middle or high school game than the NBA. The Lakers’ decision to “make the other guys beat them” meant running a glorified box-and-one defense on Harden. To his credit, Harden continually made the right play, passing out of pressure to wide open shooters. Wide open shooters who mostly missed. The Rockets were 8-33 from three and went into the half down 18. The Lakers defensive effort was strong, but as we know, Harden contains multitudes.

In the second half, Harden’s scoring showed up, as he hit step backs and layups and free throws (oh my). You know, normal Harden stuff, 48 PTS on 30 shots with 8 REBs, 6 ASTs. and 4 STLs. PJ Tucker’s defense on Kuzma in the third was simply exceptional. Kuzma scored 24 in the first half and ended the game (including the fifth overtime frame) with 32. Ennis also had a solid game in the second half, switching ably on defense, hitting a few threes, driving off kick outs, and repeatedly being available for offensive rebounds. He showed flashes of the Ennis that fans envisioned when he was signed this summer.

Brandon Ingram, whom I have an irrational dislike of, played well in the fourth and overtime, Durant-like in his ability to rise and drain contested shots. Ivica Zubac also played well for the Lakers, putting up 17 and 7 in only 21 minutes. It should be mentioned that Lonzo Ball went down in the third with a severely sprained ankle. The play happened as Ball collided with Ennis, but the injury itself was a non-contact accident. Luke Walton was apparently pretty heated and got himself an immediate double tech and ejection on the following play. The broadcast coverage of this incident was sparse, but if it was anything like Walton’s varsity-level cursing earlier in his career, it was likely earned. Regardless, here’s to Lonzo’s injury being minor and him getting back on the court as soon as possible.

So by the end of regulation, the Rockets are down three, and it was Eric Gordon’s steady hand and thirty points that got the Rockets over the hump. Twice in the final two frames, Harden played the decoy to make space for Eric to shine, and he played the part. He hit threes, played solid point-of-attack defense aside Austin Rivers, hit the three to force overtime, and knocked down clutch free throws in the final frame. In a game where minutes loads were heavy, and Gordon himself was coming off of a minutes restriction, fans were able to breath easy because the Rockets were fielding a team, not just a supernova with fillers around him. Eric, we’ve missed you.

The Eye Test

After every recap, I like to bring some thing to look for in future games. Tonight, we turn our attention to Gary Clark picking his spots. He has been shooting well from three (50% on four shots tonight) and providing solid defense no matter where he ends up on the floor (his weakside help and shotblocking is strong, and his on ball defense was solid, even if Ingram rose above and knocked down some tough shots). Tonight he was the recipient of a couple behind-the-back passes from Harden at the top of the key, the kind we saw thrown to Ryan Anderson and Ariza so often last year. Clark is still relatively unknown, so he’s likely to be wide open on these for another week or two. His release is not fast, and his form is still quite mechanical, but sound. Look for him to continue shooting well on a relatively small number of attempts in the coming games.

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