By: Forrest Walker
"We won," James Harden replied in the postgame interview, deflecting a question about a chippy play earlier in the game, "That's all that matters." The two point margin doesn't matter today. The Flagrant foul by Matt Barnes and the altercations involving Blake Griffin don't matter. The fifteen point lead the Rockets held in the third quarter that turned into a tie at the end of the fourth doesn't matter. In a game like this, the only thing that matters is who gets the W and who gets the L. Today, the Rockets grabbed the W, and Harden's team is one game closer to the playoffs.
James Harden, after two games of looking listless and lost, lit it up in Los Angeles. The Clippers looked in control in the first quarter, but the Harden came alive in the second and nobody could contain him. He may have played 41 minutes, but with no back to back games until March 30th, Harden can afford to burn at both ends for a big game against a potential playoff opponent. He shot 7-16, hit the first 17 of his 18 free throws, scored 34 and tacked on 7 rebounds and 7 assists to go with it. This is the sort of game the Rockets have been needing from him, and he picked the perfect game to return to form. After his dud in Portland, the national audience needed a reminder of what Harden can do.
The most important stat of the night was three point shooting throughout. The Rockets missed their first 12 three point attempts, and the Clippers were on fire all night. The final tally was 12-26 for Los Angeles and 7-30 for Houston. The Rockets led for most of the game despite being at a huge disadvantage from deep, a blow which could easily have ended the game for them. Those numbers never really evened out, and the Rockets held on through a relentless attack. The Rockets were outrebounded again (50-43) but this time prevented double digit offensive boards. The calls went Houston's way more often than not, and sometimes that's the difference. Of all the teams in the league, no club seems to frustrate referees more than the Clippers, and their reckless play down the stretch doomed them.
With the Rockets up by a point with thirty seconds in the game, the Rockets coughed up a costly turnover while trying to pass the ball to Harden. Griffin grabbed it and rushed down the court, preparing to crush the rim and the Rockets in one motion. Unfortunately for him, Ariza was backpedaling in front of him as he put his shoulder down and rammed Trevor. However obvious or not that call may have been, the charge was called and the Rockets were given the ball with 12 seconds left. Harden was immediately fouled, went to the line, and made one of two, giving the Clippers a chance to tie or win in the waning seconds of the game.
This time, Chris Paul was the isolation artist, and Trevor Ariza was the defensive hero. Paul got good separation on a stepback on the baseline, but Ariza was close enough to bother the shot. The bell never hit rim, the buzzer sounded, and the Rockets rode their starters to a much needed victory. Ariza played 39 minutes and hit 7 of his 15 shots for 19 points. His 9 rebounds were huge, as was his defense throughout. Ariza will need some rest going forward, because a fresh Ariza is a key cog in any potential Houston playoff run.
Terrence Jones was also huge, grabbing 5 offensive rebounds, including two put packs on back to back possessions late in the fourth. He notched a 16 point, 12 rebound double double and hit one of the most crucial shots in the game, a three pointer to put the Rockets back up when the Clippers came roaring back. With Donatas Motiejunas continuing to slump in extended minutes (43 tonight, astonishing for a player who was warming the pine not long ago), Terrence Jones is going to have to keep coming up big. Much of this will be resolved once Houston's one true center comes back, but with five more games until Dwight's rumored return against Minnesota, the balancing act must continue a little longer.
The bench rotation tightened even more, making this game perhaps a playoff preview. Joey Dorsey played a paltry 2 minutes, in which he bricked two free throws and did very little else. Corey Brewer was probably the best player off the bench, mostly due to a vicious transition dunk on Blake Griffin which immediately escalated into a quibble and a double technical foul. Despite his 3-10 shooting, he was still more of a sparkplug than Josh Smith or Jason Terry, neither of whom had a box score anywhere near up to snuff. The bench is going to have to do better than that, especially on nights when Glen Davis is actually active and scoring points.
The sum total of the game was one letter: W. There were reasons for hope and reasons for concern, but when the standings are at stake, and a playoff rival is on the court, only one thing matters. The Rockets won and the Clippers lost. It didn't matter that Matt Barnes tackled James Harden to the ground, because James Harden doesn't have to think about Barnes any more. The Rockets won, and today winning was everything.