By: Paul McGuire
Dwight Howard may be back, but the injury bug is far from gone.
The Rockets are working to make sure Howard’s knee stays healthy, but with Motiejunas’s emergence, Houston’s big man depth is acceptable. However, Isaiah Canaan played just 7 minutes (and I don’t remember him being on the court at all), Papanikolaou is still out, Jason Terry missed tonight’s game to attend to the birth of his child, Francisco Garcia is injured and has one foot in the grave, and Nick Johnson is not ready for the NBA. Houston’s wing and point guard depth has still not improved.
No matter. James Harden may be playing for too minutes in this league, but he is good enough. He may still get caught ball watching from time to time like he did on Arron Affalo’s game-tying 3-pointer, but 41 points and 10 assists make up for that. I can certainly understand why someone might take Stephen Curry ahead of him in the MVP race, but I remain confused about how some have placed Chris Paul, Marc Gasol, or Anthony Davis ahead of him. But tonight, even Denver’s Pepsi Center rang with the chants of Rocket fans yelling “M-V-P” for a time.
The Nuggets may have more depth than the Rockets (they played 9 players for more than 10 minutes compared to 7 for Houston), but they depended on Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler almost as badly as Houston depends on Harden and Howard. Lawson did not just create shots through assists, but spurred the Nuggets to use a motion offense which confused Houston’s defense for most of the game. Denver took the lead early in the first quarter and led by as much as 54-38 in the second quarter.
The Rockets steadily climbed back into the game thanks to Harden’s ability to draw fouls as well as enough buckets from Howard, Motiejunas, and everyone else. They took advantage of how Denver stopped moving the ball whenever Lawson sat, and entered the fourth quarter down by just 3 points. Houston would take the lead late, but Denver went on a 9-1 run during the final 4 minutes to lead 96-93 with just 1:23 left in the game. Houston would then score six straight points behind Harden and Howard, and led 99-96 with 4.2 seconds left.
Unfortunately, Harden fell back into his old habit of watching the ball and not his man. It was not totally indefensible – Affalo cleverly took a few steps closer to the top of the key without Harden noticing, and Lawson burst up the court faster than expected. As a result, Affalo got a shot which could have been better contested, and the Nuggets tied the game at the buzzer. Houston would go on to win the overtime, but this serves as a reminder that as much as Harden has improved on defense, he still has more work to do – that is, if his defense can continue to improve given how much of the offensive burden he carries.
A note of praise to Howard for having a good night shooting from the foul line. Howard went 9-14 from the line tonight, and hit both free throws when he earned the ball in the final minute of regulation play. ESPN showed that Howard hit 8 out of 10 free throws in the warm ups before the game, but there is a huge difference from hitting shots there and hitting them in the game. I have seen none other than Chuck Hayes hit three point shots accurately during warm ups back in his Rocket days.
Well, the Rockets have just won their third overtime game of the season. After securing their first victory at Denver in nearly three years, they now move to take on the New Orleans Pelicans tomorrow night – a team which just got Anthony Davis back last game. Canaan’s status is doubtful given his limited play and Jason Terry may still be with his wife, so there may be no cavalry to arrive and freshen up this depleted squad.