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Houston Rockets 113, Phoenix Suns 111: A Beard of an Escape

Stats are a weird thing.

One argument that critics make of James Harden is that he does not possess the midrange game which is crucial for a championship team. He just depends on three-pointers and drawing fouls, which makes him predictable and means he can be shut down in the playoffs. And when one looks at Harden’s shooting numbers, this year is not that different from last year. In fact, Harden is shooting 34% from 16 feet to the three-point line this year in contrast to 41% last year.

But this does not match up at all with what I have seen this year. Harden has developed a mid-range game, and he uses it more than ever. The stepback mid-range jumper is another weapon in his arsenal and is why his scoring has increased even though Harden is not actually not drawing fouls at the same rate as previous seasons ( While Harden draws as many free throws as he did last season, you have to remember that he dominates the ball more compared to last year). Tonight, Harden took on PJ Tucker, a defender who has given him fits in the past, scored 33 points, and rose up to drain the classic mid-range game winner. New-style money ball, meet old-style classic ball.

Harden’s game winning shot over the Suns will get the highlight reels, but that is not as important as Dwight Howard’s right ankle injury. Howard rolled his ankle while grabbing a rebound with three minutes left in the first quarter. The injury did not appear to be that serious, but the Rockets wasted no time declaring that Howard would be out for the rest of the game. The latest reports from Jonathan Feigen indicate that Howard seems to be fine and could be ready for Sunday’s game against the Lakers, but I am far too paranoid about Howard’s health to rest easy. Howard is scoring less than 14 points on just 54% shooting for January, and I am depressed to admit after his injuries and sub-par offense that he should probably not make the All-Star team this year.

Howard’s absence was exacerbated by the fact that Motiejunas struggled with foul trouble for most of the game – he played extremely well, but only for 23 minutes. McHale called up Smith, Dorsey, and Papanikolaou to substitute for the missing big men, but all three had their problems. Smith was effective scoring in transition as well as the post ( where he hit a couple hook shots), but he had 6 of Houston’s 14 turnovers in just the latest episode of why I am not much more confident in Smith’s passing compared to the rest of his offensive game. Papanikolaou by contrast passed well, especially alongside Motiejunas, but missed all four of his three-pointers. And those misses were about as bad as it gets, especially since Papanikolaou was not contested in any of them and was completely wide-open in at least two of them. And Dorsey committed the stupidest foul of the game, as he gave Markieff Morris the and-1 in the final 30 seconds which completed Phoenix’s last-ditch rally.

And while Harden’s game-winner was fantastic, it came to that thanks to said last-ditch rally and a Rockets collapse. Houston had a solid lead for the first 42 minutes of the game and led by 14 points with less than six minutes left. They then stopped playing defense down the stretch, as Phoenix would come down to score in all but two possessions for the remainder of the game. Houston would have been able to avoid that final collapse had Dwight been healthy, but their defense has not been quite as good as it was at the start of the season. The Rockets committed several easy mistakes on defense, such as a play in the third quarter when Motiejunas and Beverley needlessly collapsed on Eric Bledsoe, leaving Alex Len open for the easy dunk.

After nearly giving away tonight’s game to a Western Confernece playoff contender, Houston will look to blow out the Lakers on Sunday. The Lakers are a hot mess, Kobe appears to be done for the season, and no one knows what is going on between Lin and Byron Scott (Lin got a DNP-CD in last night’s game against San Antonio.) An easy game may be just what the doctor ordered to get this team rejuvenated.

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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Houston Rockets 113, Golden State Warriors 126: That…did not go well