By: Paul McGuire
We may forget it from time to time, but there are other players on the Rockets besides James Harden.
Harden dropped 24 points tonight, but by his ludicrous standards did not score all that well. He took 17 free throws and shot just 4-11 from the field. Dallas was aggressive with the double team and absolutely determined to make the rest of the Rockets beat them tonight.
And that is what the rest of the Rockets did. Terrence Jones came close to a triple double, Jason Terry and Trevor Ariza blazed from three, and Corey Brewer was the hero of the fourth quarter. And while it is far too easy to massively extrapolate from just one game, there is one thing that is patently clear: the Mavericks may have an answer for James Harden. But they are as helpless as a newborn kitten in trying to stop Dwight Howard.
In the Red94 Preview Roundtable, I noted that the big man battle would be key to this series. If Dallas prevails, it will be because Dirk looks like old Dirk and Chandler can challenge Howard. Well, Dirk looked like old Dirk on the offensive end, as he scored 24 points on just 10-14 shooting. But Dirk's never-terrific defense has now completely collapsed, and Houston attacked him again and again through the pick and roll.
Tyson Chandler in the meantime had 11 points and 18 rebounds, so one might think he had a terrific game. And he did - whenever Howard was not on the floor. When he was, Chandler could not do anything.
Nor for that matter could the Dallas offense as a whole. The difference in Houston's defense when Howard was in or out reminds me of 2013 when Houston's defense collapsed whenever Omer Asik took a breather. The Mavericks can throw Rondo or Aminu or Harris or double teams galore to slow down Harden like happened tonight. But they have no answer for Howard's defense and finishing ability. Howard shut down the paint completely, and if he had managed to play over 30 minutes, this would have been a blowout.
But Dallas got him into foul trouble and limited Howard to just 18 minutes tonight. He started by picking up two cheap fouls in the first. At the beginning of the second quarter, Rick Carlisle started by ordering Amare Stoudemire to post up on Howard again and again. These post-ups kept failing, but eventually Amare managed to draw Howard's third foul and send him to the bench. The pattern for much of the game is that the Rockets would destroy the Mavericks when Howard was on the floor. Then Howard would pick up a foul after three or four minutes, and then Dallas would then crawl back into this game.
Kevin McHale surprisingly sent out Clint Capela to replace Howard instead of Joey Dorsey. Capela can block shots, but he needs more time in the weight room before he can successfully guard Amare or Tyson Chandler. He also is still not fully aware of the Rockets defensive rotations, as he hedged way too far on the screen and roll on multiple possessions. This left Houston's defense vulnerable to cutters, which the Mavericks took advantage of.
But while Clint Capela is not as good a defender as Dorsey, this is made up for by the fact that he is a much better offensive weapon. You can actually run a pick and roll with Capela and expect him to finish at the rim if you pass it to him. There were multiple plays which started with Harden passing out of the hard double team to Jones or Josh Smith, who would then make the interior pass to Howard or Capela. Capela finished with 8 points and 6 rebounds, a sound playoff debut for someone who few expected to see in the playoffs at all.
Jason Terry, Corey Brewer, and Trevor Ariza also had some great games as well. Brewer only hit three 3-pointers over the final 12 games of the regular season. He hit three in the fourth quarter tonight, all of which came late in the shot clock, and finished with 12 points in the fourth quarter. Terry was the steady hand ready with a 3-point bomb when his former team seemed about to counterattack. And Ariza shut down anyone he guarded, whether it was Parsons, Ellis, or even Dirk late in the fourth quarter.
This series is far from over, but I do believe after tonight that Dallas at its best cannot hang with the Rockets at their best. Houston has more depth, a better star, and a defense that they can fall back on should things go bad. The question is whether Rick Carlisle can muck things up enough over the next few games. With more Dwight on the floor protecting the paint, the Rockets could shut down the Dallas offense over the next few games.
Shaqtin-a-Fool moment of the game: Late in the fourth quarter, Rick Carlisle hacked Josh Smith who went 1 for 2 at the foul line. Kevin McHale responded by hacking Rondo - but Houston was not in the penalty yet.