By: Paul McGuire
The Houston Rockets beat the Dallas Mavericks.
I don’t really know what to say. It’s been such an up and down season. Having an actual defense. The injuries. Harden taking another leap to a true superstar. The injuries. Motiejunas becoming useful. The injuries. Josh Smith, the good. Josh Smith, the bad.
And now, the Houston Rockets have beaten the Dallas Mavericks. Not so much with Harden heroics but with solid, real team defense that was not there last year. And the result turned out to be so much different from last year.
I don't actually believe that old phrase of "defense wins championships". A NBA team needs both to win, not just one or the other. Every championship team since 2000 outside a few quirky exceptions has been a top 10 offensive and defensive team.
But defense won tonight's game, and thus the series. Sure, Houston did have problems in transition and let the Mavericks grab 23 fastbreak points. But the Mavericks had no idea what to do in the half court game.
Some of that could just be attributed to Dirk's rapid decline. Dirk missed a lot of shots which he would have made four years ago, and we all know that he cannot guard anyone anymore. This may be his final playoff game as Oklahoma City returns next year and the Pelicans rise. Whatever your feelings about Dallas, the Mavericks, and Mark Cuban, you have to respect Dirk. I think he is one of the 20 greatest players in NBA history.
But it is not 2011, and Trevor Ariza and Terrence Jones stayed with Dirk. Some Rockets had poorer shooting nights than others, but no one had a bad defensive night. Harden made a crucial steal at the end of the game. Pablo Priginoni drew a charge on Al-Farouq Aminu, who apparently becomes the fusion of LeBron James and Kyle Korver when he plays the Rockets. Even Jason Terry got in a blocked shot.
And at the center of it all was Dwight Howard. Howard played 39 minutes tonight, the most of any Rocket. It's great to see him terrorize any Maverick near the rim, or catch passes from Harden or "fellow AAU teammate" Josh Smith ( Marv Albert must have mentioned that tidbit a thousand times tonight.) But the best part is that McHale appears to be confident enough in Dwight's health to give him proper playoff minutes. Hopefully, Howard can stay on the court throughout Round 2 and be as monstrous as he was against Dallas.
On offense, no a "big four" of Smith-Howard-Jones-Harden carried Houston throughout the game. Houston did try to pass the ball around to the open three-point shooter, but the best option became "give the ball to Harden and just let him distribute." Jones and Smith took advantage of Dirk's horrible defense throughout the game and had a great time in transition, while Dwight Howard was just too heavy for Chandler. It is one of the few times where working Howard in the post becomes a sound offensive strategy.
While Smith, Howard, and Jones were all effective on the field, the free throw line was a different matter. The Rockets as a team started off hitting just 1 of their first 11 free throws. Carlisle employed Hack-a-Smith/Howard a few times throughout the game. Dwight and Smith failed to be accurate enough to deter hacking, but Houston managed to stay alive during that stretch with their strong half court defense. If Houston draws the Spurs for Round 2 (as seems to be more likely), Popovich will hack more often than Rick Carlisle did or Doc Rivers will.
And now one observation: At the end of the day, I do believe that this is Houston's best chance to win a title in the near future. Yes, the Warriors are looming over everything else, ready to swamp every other team on their path to basketball dominance. But Memphis, Cleveland, Chicago, and so many other teams are vulnerable thanks to injuries. And while Howard has been terrific this year, that knee is a bomb which can go off at any second.
A championship windows can open and close shut with the slightest change. But for now, the Rockets can sit back and enjoy this wonderful victory. For the first since 2009, they are in the second round of the NBA playoffs. And that is good enough - for now.