By: Paul McGuire
The Houston Rockets won 54 games last year.
They won 54 games tonight, and still have two games left against weaker teams in Charlotte and Utah.
And yet even if they win both games, they could finish as the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
Geez, this is stupid.
As for tonight's game in and of itself? Well, I do not know how this team managed to win 56 games without Dwight Howard's defense.
Okay, that is not totally honest. The Rockets won with generous helpings of Donatas Motiejunas's defense ( a sentence which I would have died laughing from ten months ago.) Howard played 28 minutes tonight, the most since his return. And while it is just painfully obvious that much of his athleticism no longer exists, Howard's defense has always been just as much about his head and length as it is about his leaping ability. While the Pelicans led for most of the game, it was never a comfortable lead, and much of it came down to Howard's work on the post and alley-oop as it was about his defense.
Howard's work in the post meant that aside from a terrible stretch from the end of the first to about halfway through the second( which started the minute Joey Dorsey came into the game), Houston's offense was humming throughout the entire night. Oklahoma City has given up and poses no threat to the Golden State Warriors, but the Pelicans are going to be destroyed in the playoffs. Anthony Davis's young brilliance aside, this New Orleans team does not have a perimeter defender who can stop Harden or Klay Thompson. I believe Quincy Pondexter is supposed to be a 3-and-D guy, but Harden toyed with Pondexter all night. There was one play where Harden dribbled the ball out towards Pondexter's space far closer than you would like, but Harden just moved the ball and got the layup. Bill Worrell compared it to a cat toying with a mouse.
And it was not just all Harden - while Harden finished with 30 points, he did not score a single point in the fourth quarter. That was when Houston blew the game open, and it was thanks to Corey Brewer. Brewer scored 13 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter, where he killed the Pelicans by outrunning them over and over. But Brewer has developed one problem. While he has never been a great three-point shooter, he has yet to hit a single one so far in April. He is shooting less than 29 percent from long-range as a Rocket. Meanwhile, Josh Smith is over 34 percent.
Houston's offense worked well for most of the game. The defense looked like last year. As noted above, Howard played very well there. But Harden had some moments tonight where he lapsed back into last year's Harden on defense. There was a stretch in the third quarter where Eric Gordon got four straight layups or three-pointers on him. And we all know about Prigioni and Terry's defense or lack thereof. There were too many plays where Gordon, Tyreke Evans, or even Pondexter would just blow by whichever Rocket was supposed to guard them on the perimeter and then that player would dish it to Asik or Davis when Howard came out to greet them.
The result was still a victory, and so far this season has been a success for the Rockets in spite of everything. But it is frustrating to see such a problem this late in the season. All the more so since it was Houston's lack of perimeter defense which killed them against Portland last year.
Postscript: Those two losses to San Antonio pretty much gave Stephen Curry the MVP. Now it looks like Harden will not be the scoring champion either after Russell Westbrook scored 54 points tonight in a loss against the Pacers. Westbrook took 43 shots to get those points, the most field goal attempts in a game since Kobe in January 2008.
The scoring champion is a meaningless title. Nevertheless, it is frustrating to know that after a season where Harden has carried this Rockets team on offense again and again and led them so far on that end, someone who has missed over 15 games will grab it just because he is dominating to the ball to a degree not seen since 2006 Kobe.
There is a lot about Russell Westbrook that irks me, both in his play and in the tremendous accolades he has attained this season by playing this way. But that is a topic for another time.