By: Forrest Walker
The Houston Rockets aren't good enough. Sure, 28-13 is good for homecourt in the first round, a pace for 56 teams and an improvement in the first round. The Rockets have been beating tough teams, winning with solid defense and have a legitimate MVP candidate on the team. This is probably the best Rockets team we've seen in twenty years in probably the best Western Conference we've seen in decades. There's little reason for anything except effusive praise and recognition of how good of a team Daryl Morey's front office has built.
Losing in a drubbing to the best team in the league is a good reminder that they still need to get better.
Is there anything the Golden State Warriors can't do? As this season hits the midpoint, the only thing the Warriors have to prove anymore is that they can stay healthy long enough to win a championship. Even when MVP hopeful Steph Curry shoots a miserable 2-8 from three point range, the Warriors can still dissect the #2 defense in the league for 131. The point, however, is not that the Warriors are good. The point is that with that team out there, the bar has been raised for the rest of the NBA, especially the meat grinder that is the west. Tonight, we saw what happens when a team vaults face-first into that bar.
James Harden, in particular, took in on the chin. Klay Thompson did as good a job defensively as anyone's done on Harden all season on a night when James' game temporarily left him. 12 points on 15 shots isn't anyone's idea of efficiency, and his 4 boards and 4 assists were sub-par, even for a mere 30 minutes of play. Foul trouble kept him out much of the game, and garbage time forced him to some early rest at the end. With Harden disrupted at best and sitting at worst, the Houston offense sputtered and died at times. The 106 point total says more about the pace of the game than about the shooting, which was a miserable 42% overall.
The three point line was smothered by defense all night, leading to not only a bad three point percentage for Houston (7-23, for 30%), but some disappointing lines for a number of players who rely on the arc for points. Ariza's 7 points on 2-5 shooting was actually preferable to several lines, like Patrick Beverley's 4-13 night, or Jason Terry and Corey Brewer combining to him one three in six tries.
The only bench player who really stood out was, of course, Josh Smith. He went 5-10, knocked down a three (that maybe he shouldn't have taken, if we're being honest), went 75% at the stripe and was just generally in the right place at the right time. Josh Smith is that TV show you won't admit to your friends that you watch because you don't even really like it that much and you don't even think it's good, but you keep seeing glimpses of the great TV show it could be and you keep watching because it gets just enough right that you think that with enough time, one day, when it plays to its strengths, it's gonna be awesome. Today the Josh Smith show had a fun episode. What will we see next time? Stay tuned to find out.
The one bright spot was that the Rockets posted up well against the Warriors. Drive and kick? Pick and roll? Golden State was ready and waiting. Backing them down in the paint, however, was more effective, and might just be a place to put together a plan. Howard had his way with Andrew Bogut, racking up 23 points on 9-15 shooting and getting the Australian big man in foul trouble early. His 7 free throws looked strikingly better, and he made 5 of them. 10 rebounds and 3 assists are a fine line any night of the week, and he was aided in his quest by Donatas Motiejunas. D-mo shot 50%, scored 14, grabbed 7 boards and had a +/- of only -3! On a night when every Rocket logged a net negative, that's reason for hope.
The Rockets now have time to lick their wounds before they face the Pacers next and then the Warriors again. If there's any way Houston can instigate improvement without roster moves, now is the time. If that turns out not to be the case, the trade deadline is only month away. Going .680 might be good enough most seasons, but good enough just won't cut it this year, against this level of competition. It's time to take another step, even after having taken so many.