Houston Rockets 112, Toronto Raptors 109: Back in the playoffs (for now)

The Houston Rockets are not as good as the Toronto Raptors.

Despite the victory tonight, that fact was apparent. Toronto is a team. They have a lot of guys from the pre-Harden Rockets era, and while those teams always failed to make the playoffs, they were never disappointing or boring to watch. When they went on a 15-point turnaround in the span of four minutes late in the second quarter, you could just see the Raptors run, shoot, and pass at a level which the Houston Rockets have not done all season.

So when an inferior team is playing a superior team, all you can do is hope for a bit of variance and luck. Tonight, that luck came in the form of great three-point shooting. So while Houston’s defense continues to have holes, and Clint Capela and Dwight Howard put on a free-throw missing contest for the ages, Harden scored enough points and the rest of the Rockets caught fire to put away this game down the stretch.

There was more to this win than a fluke shooting night from the Rockets. They got good shots because the passing game was better tonight. Patrick Beverley hit five 3’s, but he also fulfilled a secondary ball-handling role which Ty Lawson was supposed to do at the start of this season. He also appeared to contribute to getting Kyle Lowry tossed from the game with less than 30 seconds left by being his usual, irritating self. Combine that with DeMar DeRozan getting tossed a few minutes earlier, and the Raptors lacked the firepower to pull off a fourth-quarter comeback.

While Harden was terrific and grabbed his third triple-double of the year with 32 points, the passing game meant that he did not have to beat Toronto by himself like he tried to do against Utah.

Beverley and Harden’s contribution to this victory were all the more important because of how invisible Houston’s centers were tonight. Dwight just attempted two shots, and it is clear watching him just how much he has declined. He looked uncomfortable being stuck on perimeter players, especially Raptors starting small forward Norman Powell. The Howard of the past featured a terrifying combination of horizontal and vertical defense, but the former appears to be gone.

And if that was not problematic enough, Howard and Clint Capela went a combined 2-13 from the free throw line tonight. Howard’s free throw shooting is what it is at this point in his career, but Capela needs to spend his offseason working on that and practically nothing else.

Also, one thought about Michael Beasley, perhaps the most intriguing Rockets player at this point. Beasley had 21 points tonight, starting off very strong in the first quarter with 10 points. I also have to give him a lot of credit for how he got into the paint, and will admit that perhaps I remain a bit too skeptical of his long-term prognosis on the offensive end.

But while Beasley can produce on offense, he has the worst +/- and Net Rating of any Rockets rotation player by a noticeable margin. His +/- against Toronto was -5. And as Rahat Huq noted about Beasley, opponents are scoring with ease when he is on the court.

I will agree with Rahat that Beasley is trying on defense. He’s not visibly loafing or ball-watching like you can see with Harden (and which produces videos like this). But while it’s hard to single out a particular play from this game, Beasley is often in the wrong spot at the wrong time, and makes mistakes on rotating. It is not surprising given that he came in mid-season, and could be fixed next season should Beasley still be with the Rockets.

But there is also the fact that Beasley is too small ( he’s just as much 6’9” as Hakeem was 7 feet tall) to really body up bigger power forwards, and while Beasley is crafty and offensively skilled, he’s not really athletic or quick. Patrick Patterson, a solid but unspectacular power forward, overpowered Beasley in the post. A player who is not smart or athletic on the defensive end will be a liability there, and the Rockets do not need two defensive weaknesses on the court.

With a Jazz loss on Thursday and this Rockets win, Houston finds itself back in the 7th seed despite its sub-.500 record. They take on the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, continuing a stretch of tough games which will culminate against the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 3. If Houston can stay in the top 8 by that point, they will almost certainly find themselves in the playoffs.

About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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