By: Forrest Walker
K.J. McDaniels got to say hello to his former team in the best way possible: solid play in a (mostly) solid win. The Houston Rockets haven't given McDaniels a lot of chance to prove himself in this dismal season. Veterans have been the order of the day, and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been desperately trying to carve out wins. Against the Philadelphia 76ers, however, K.J. was given the chance to get some burn, and he burned the Sixers in turn. The Rockets now sit a full two and a half games above the 9th seed Utah Jazz, likely to make the playoffs and get obliterated in the first round.
Specifically, McDaniels burned the Sixers for 12 points on a mere 4 shots, one of which was a thunderous putback dunk. He was aggressive in all of his 17 minutes, which is why he shot 6 free throws. This was what his fans have been hoping to see from him in Houston, should he get the opportunity. When he finally got it, he went hard against the team that drafted him, which can only bode well for his standing with the coaching staff. If only he had a three point shot, he could make a real impact on a team desperately seeking one.
James Harden, of course, continued in the way he usually does. He didn't have the most efficient night, and it took 41 minutes of Harden to put away a feisty 76ers team, but he got there in the end. He shot 8-26, scored 29 points, and added 9 rebounds and 8 assists to that. He flirts with a triple double on any given night, and when he's even average on defense, he's the soul of the team. Millions of words could be and have been written about what that means, but it's undeniably true. The team turned it on in the last few minutes, and Harden was the man turning that dial.
The other linchpins of that closing run were Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza (plus a timely three pointer from Jason Terry). Both remembered how to defend, and the Rockets shot the 76ers down on that end while Ariza and Howard exerted their influence on the offense as well. When Ariza hits shots, he's absolutely invaluable. The end of this game was one of those times. Dwight Howard's ability to jump, rebounds, contest and block seems to come and go, but it came back at a good times tonight. He's still a force of nature at times. The drawback is that those times seem fewer and farther between as time goes by.
The larger story to this game was one of talent vs scheme, somehow. Whether by design or not, the Sixers play in a style that the Rockets simply have few answers for. It's not unique to them by any means, which may help explain why the Rockets seem unable to hang with anyone. The Sixers protected the rim, fouling if need be, and happened to get punished for it when the Rockets actually hit 75% of their 41 free throws. The Sixers shot 32 themselves, and neither team was coy with their fouls. Making the Rockets earn it at the stripe is seldom a losing formula.
On the other hand, the 76ers basically ran right at the rim on offense, and grabbed offensive boards on misses. The Sixers had 7 offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone, ending the night with 16 in total. It's only through a flurry of crashing their own glass in the third that the Rockets ended up with the same number of field goals as the Sixers. The Rockets have little transition defense, poor defensive rebounding, and bad rim protection. The first and fourth quarters were essays in how a lesser team can take advantage of that.
And in the fourth, the biggest move the Sixers got right was to let the Rockets shoot open threes. Philadelphia hit some shots and closed a 15 point lead to just 3 when Houston's offense cratered. Three pointers are streaky by nature, and the Rockets are streakier than most. Houston desperately needs to play fast to make sure that there are enough possessions for the shooting to even out. At some point in most games, the Rockets are going to shoot themselves out of a game or shoot the other team back in. Tonight, that was at the end of the game. The day was only saved by an intensified defensive presence alongside a truly epic collapse by the 76ers.
A halfway decent team with this gameplan would have given the Rockets a lot more trouble. Thankfully for Houston, the Sixers aren't halfway decent. Instead, they got a chance to play the young guys, give K.J. McDaniels a little revenge, and slide upward in the standings a little. All they have to do now is build on this win. Yup. That's all they've ever had to do.