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Houston Rockets 113, Brooklyn Nets 99: Don’t wake the beard

If you want to sneak up on a better team, don’t throw the basketball at their head first. The Brooklyn Nets learned that the hard way after a sudden and unexpected altercation erupted four minutes into the game. Kevin Garnett took exception to Dwight Howard’s play under the rim and gave Howard a bit of a shove, the beginning of an exchange that included a headbutt from Garnett. Kevin Garnett walked around the court shouting (and being held by various players) before the altercation finally ended. When the dust settled, Garnett was ejected and Howard was given a technical foul. Then the rest of the dust settled, and James Harden was standing atop the rubble of the Brooklyn Nets.

The Rockets might have been vulnerable to a bit of ennui, just complacent enough for a veteran team with a veteran coach to get the better of. We’ll never know if a languid Houston team might have fallen, because Kevin Garnett woke the beard, and sometimes the beard eats you. The Nets were scoring at a mighty clip to begin the game, and actually hung around for a good while. In the second half, however, the Rockets slammed the door shut quickly, calmly, and directly on the head of an already hurting Nets team. The game tightened up significantly in garbage time, which lasted nearly the entire fourth quarter. It was a tremendous blowout, which is the best possible way to curtail minutes for the starters.

The Nets were able to take advantage of some porous defense and some disappointing play from Dwight Howard to rally within two points, led by Mason Plumlee’s 24 points (on 10-11 shooting! Not Dwight’s best cover). The less said about Howard’s performance, the better. He had 8 points and it took him 9 shots to get there. His 5 boards were atrocious, even for a lower-than-average 28 minutes of burn. He didn’t look in rhythm all night and was getting pushed around down low by Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee. As long as he gets right by the time the Rockets come home to host the Thunder, all will be forgotten.

James Harden, however, had no such troubles. Instead, Harden had 30 points on 13 shots, shot 4-7 from deep, dished out 6 assists and only turned the ball over twice. Oh, and he did it in 30 minutes. Harden’s consistently torching everyone he comes across, and he’s scoring in every conceivable fashion. Layups? Threes? Dribble drives? Coming off screens? Fading away at the elbow? Crossing over and posting up? Check, check, check. He’s earning himself a long rest during fourth quarters, all the better to keep his energy up on both sides of the ball. This incarnation of James Harden is otherworldly, deadly, and most surprisingly looks sustainable. If he and a certain other MVP candidate meet in the playoffs, the parquet might just light on fire.

Any night when Donatas Motiejunas leads the team in minutes played (37) and the Rockets win is a great outing. He notched yet another double double with 18 points and 11 rebounds, all while shooting an incredibly efficient 8-11 from the field. He’s been scoring in the post with contemptible ease, and handily defending his starting position from the usurper Josh Smith. We’ll soon see if he can keep this assault up against the tougher fours in the league, but so far he’s been utter poison when paired with James Harden. He promised years ago that he would catch up to Dwight Howard, and right now he looks like he spends every day working toward that goal.

Trevor Ariza quietly broiled the Nets, knocking down 3-5 from downtown on the way to 12 points and 4 boards. He was only credited with one steal (and the team with 9), but it looked like a lot more than that as he played the passing lanes with the precision and dexterity we’ve come to expect. The last starter, Patrick Beverley, has a solid if not flashy 11 points on 10 shots, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. It was a team effort for the Rockets in Brooklyn.

Even Josh Smith got to have some fun. He only shot 5-15 (get used to him taking the most shots on the team, by the way) but his six rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal are nice peripheral stats for a player who seems to be sliding into the sixth man slot. Against second units, he’s creating havok (for both teams), and sometimes that’s what’s needed. If his headband comrades Corey Brewer and Jason Terry had shot better from deep (0-5 and 3-7 respectively), his unit would have looked even more impressive. The jury remains out on Josh Smith, but with him off the bench, deliberations are going a bit better.

The Rockets are still figuring out their rotation, but it looks as if they’re creeping toward that chemistry they had when they were rolling in November. This game against a seriously depleted Brooklyn team may not have been much of a challenge, but it was a test they aced. There’s room for optimism, here, something that Houston will surely need against a schedule that’s about to come down on them like a ton of bricks. Today, however, the beard is in charge.

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