By: Forrest Walker
Tonight, the Houston Rockets learned the hard lesson that a Los Angeles Clippers team without Chris Paul is still an NBA team. Austin Rivers may be a giant downgrade from CP3, but he's still able to throw a basketball at a hoop. Glen Davis might not be a world beater, but he's still going to hit wide open shots. Dwight Howard was the only member of the team to show any sort of agency and any signs of life during a critical game that the Houston Rockets absolutely had to capitalize on. Letting the Clippers steal a win while Chris Paul rests a hamstring injury is either a sign of a team being worse than expected, less mentally prepared than expected, or a terrible combination of the two. This wasn't simply a Clippers bench going wild. This was a massive egg laid by the Rockets, and now they're going to have to fight twice as hard for the rest of the series.
The best player of the night was Houston's pile of 24 turnovers, which had a game-high 34 points. Rockets turnovers had a slightly better night than Clippers turnovers, which was only 23 turnovers deep but only resulted in 21 points, a much worse showing. The Clippers were much more aggressive in the fast break, much more coherent as a team, and generally didn't look like they expected to play the 7-win Charlotte Bobcats team from 2012. Giving away live ball turnover after live ball turnover was a bold play from Houston, and tonight it just didn't work out.
Dwight Howard was probably the only Rocket to look like he belonged on the court. he made 9 of his 13 attempts, flushed on some lobs, grabbed 10 boards and protected the rim to the tune of 5 swats. He was athletic, quick, aggressive, and calling for the team to calm down and make solid plays. Of course, none of it would end up mattering as the team crumbled around him. He only hit 4 of his 9 free throws, and the team followed his example, shooting a desultory 14-24 from the stripe. He was as good as the Rockets could expect, and it wasn't close to enough.
This is in part because James Harden apparently got hit with a Freaky Friday type skills swap, known as the Space Jam or Thunderstruck in some regions. Hopefully the unknown individual used Harden's ability to good effect, because James Harden wasn't much good to his team. People wondered if seeing Steph Curry win MVP would motivate Harden to step up his game. If this was him trying to prove the world wrong, it could use some work. Going 3-6 from three point range is well and good, but going 3-7 otherwise and scoring 20 points on 13 shots is sub-par for a team that badly needed his contributions. Like a classic Thunderstruck victim, he preferred to pass the ball instead of shooting, leading to a very respectable 12 assists. It also led to a very ugly 9 turnovers. This is not Harden basketball, and it is not Rockets basketball. This is Moron Mountain basketball, and the Space Jam revival is good and over.
Pablo Prigioni and his 3-5 three point shooting were the only other bright spots for Houston's ugliest outing in months. Corey Brewer tried hard, as always, but was sloppy and unsuccessful. Josh Smith started jacking up threes after hitting a timely one, and looked out of sorts all night (apart from a lovely lob to Howard). Terrence Jones went 1-6 and couldn't have been more invisible. Trevor Ariza started hot by hitting 4 shots in a row, but then went 4-9 the rest of the way and it was worse than it sounds. The Rockets went from leading by 12 to trailing by 10 in about 18 minutes, a feat only topped by their complete concession with 2 minutes left in the game.
In the first round, the Rockets did what they were supposed to and stamped out the Dallas Mavericks. But after winning convincingly in the first two games, the Rockets got into rut of bad decisions and sloppy play, and they have yet to pull out of it. perhaps going up so commandingly in that series made them complacent. Perhaps they caught whatever the Atlanta Hawks have that makes them terrible now. I choose to believe head coach Kevin McHale. Here's what he had to say:
"There are no excuses. They wanted it more."
On nine days out of then, "they wanted it more" is just a trope and an aphorism that fails to explain the much more tangible factors that led to a loss. It just so happens that today was that tenth day. Maybe next time the Rockets will want it enough to actually try.