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Houston Rockets 115, Dallas Mavericks 104: Fun came back

On January 24th, 2016, in a game against the Dallas Mavericks, the Houston Rockets played well, gave effort, and looked like they were having fun while doing it. In a season defined by disappointment, failure, and frustration, all three were absent for one joyous game. Whether this means the Rockets are rounding into form, or that the myriad problems which have plagued them for nearly a year are on the way out is a different matter. There are still many reasons for concern, and a very long road ahead. But in their convincing win over the Mavs, the Rockets showed some self-respect, and that’s a huge first step.

What’s most notable about this game? Was it James Harden’s triple double? Was it the further adventures of the conquering Josh Smith? Maybe it was an aggressive and successful Ty Lawson. There were a lot of things to like about this game, especially the big comeback keyed by Josh Smith. The Rockets got out to a double-digit lead in the first quarter, but the collapsed in the second, ending the half down by 8. This spread to double-digits the other way before the Rockets turned it on in midway through the third and never looked back.

Smith was a huge part of that run, and a huge part of the energy the Rockets needed to spark it. Rather than looking frustrated or moping, the Rockets looked spirited, especially when Smith silated and devastated Dirk Nowitzki. He shot a mere 6-14 for 16 points, but it was his passing and defense that helped his team. 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks and 1 turnover in 23 minutes was a truly weird but truly needed line. It’s hard to estimate what Josh Smith is doing for this team, especially since it’s been a mere two games.

For what it’s worth, the Rockets have looked like a different team during those two games, passing the ball and looking for the open man, and actually moving off the ball sometimes. The team defense is still a mixture of confusing to not present, but he’s another plus defender, and has better instincts than Clint Capela does just yet. He certainly gives the Rockets more lineup options even as he has a negative impact on efficiency and floor spacing. He also seems to have an effect on the team’s chemistry, which so far seems good. The team seems more excited and enthusiastic since his return, but again, it could just be winning, or it could just be random variance. We don’t know what Smith means for the Rockets yet, but so far it hardly seems bad.

There were some bad elements, however. Primary among them is Clint Capela being a sophomore. He has good games and bad games, and this was one of the bad ones. He scored 8 points, but it took him 7 shots to get there. He missed all 3 of his free throws (which remains a constant frustration), and he missed on a few easy layups and dunks. He’s getting there, but sometimes he shows you how much he has left to learn. His rim protection, for example, often leaves much to be desired from a rebounding perspective. He’s being asked to fill some pretty big shoes, so it’s only to be expected when the shoes don’t fit at times.

Harden, on the other hand, filled his shoes with aplomb. He may only have shot 3-10 from deep, but went 4-8 otherwise and ended with 23 points (behind only Ariza’s 29 and Parsons’ 31 in what can be described as an ex-Houston swingman shootout). He also logged 15 rebounds (!!!) 10 assists, 2 blocks and only 2 turnovers. He also played defense, showing how effective he can be in particular in one-on-one defense. When Smith was eviscerating Dirk, Harden and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff were celebrating and shouting on the sidelines, something that’s been a rare sight in this bizarre season.

Ty Lawson played basketball! That was neat. He shot 4-6 for 10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and a block in 24 minutes. His minutes overlapped with Harden’s somewhat, especially late in the game, and he’s slowly, slowly starting to look more aggressive and be included in the offense. That line would make more sense in 10-15 minutes, but he’s helping when he has the ball, and seems to be getting more comfortable running the second team. If he’s planning on taking off, now would seem to be a good time.

Everyone had a good time, and everyone got their licks in today. The Rockets sputtered briefly, but they came back strong and they looked like they enjoyed it. They stole the all left and right, they attacked on offense, and they had some good defensive possessions. There’s still a lot of road between the Rockets and and championship contention, and there’s very little chance they actually make it back to that point, but they look like they’re actually on that road now. They’ve been lost in the woods for ages, but today they found some daylight. Today, they actually had some fun.

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Houston Rockets 102, Milwaukee Bucks 98: The prodigal son returns