Corey Brewer went into overdrive and very nearly willed the Rockets to a comeback win singlehandedly. Yes, this is a real thing that happened, and yes, it was a gut punch of a loss for the Rockets, but no, all is not lost. The big takeaway for Houston is that Corey Brewer is a fantastic fit for the team and a great addition going forward. The small takeaway is that the Rockets really need Dwight Howard back in uniform. And the nails in the coffin were an alternating rotation of missed free throws, blown rebounds on defense and stagnant offense. The Rockets staged a mighty late comeback, run almost entirely by Corey Brewer, but with little help from Harden earlier in the game, it was just too much for one bench warrior to overcome. The damage was done, the game is over, and the Rockets slide back into the familiar fourth seed.
The Rockets must now answer a question they’ve been asked all year: what do they do if opposing teams focus entirely on James Harden? He was largely contained tonight, with Blazers defenders parked inside his jersey, daring the other Rockets to do damage instead. Apart from the heroic efforts of Brewer, this gambit paid off for Portland. Whether Harden was feeling sluggish, having an off night, or simply stymied by Portland’s much-improved defense, the result was grim. Four points in the second half, none of which came in the critical fourth quarter. 18 points on 19 shots. No threes. 2 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals, a line which features exactly one stat worth noting. He was sluggish all night, apart from a couple nice plays in the first half. Harden needs to bounce back, and quickly.
In fact, Harden should take a page from Corey Brewer’s book. Specifically, he should take the March 12, 2o15 page and just copy everything exactly. Here’s what’s on that page: 9-16 shooting, 3-5 on threes, 23 points, 2 crucial steals and 25 minutes played. He scored 17 points in the last 4 minutes of the game, and brought the team back from a certain loss to a mere heartbreaker instead. The Rockets were down 11 points late in the fourth, but managed to close it to a one point game with mere seconds to go. The game wasn’t out of reach until the Rockets failed, yet again, to secure a rebound after a crucial stop.
In fact, rebounding was a major issue. Spoilers: missing your best rebounder against a team with size like Portland is a recipe for failure on the boards. The Rockets were outrebounded by a brutal 50%, with 40 vs 60. Aldridge alone had 14 of them and was a deadeye 12-20 from the field. Without Dwight Howard, there is no hope against LaMarcus, even if you get him in foul trouble, as Houston did. Unless he fouls out, he’s still going to stomp all over everyone, and rebound right over everyone except Dwight Howard.
The good news there is that Dwight Howard is going to come back soon, and has been saying very reassuring things about his knee. The other good news is that the Rockets are extremely unlikely to play the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs. They would have to end up as the two and three seeds to realistically meet before the conference finals, which would require a drop off by the Grizzlies, and would require the Rockets to actually win a playoff series anyway.
Long story short, everyone played terrible except for Brewer (seriously. don’t even look at the box score.), the Rockets hit 13 free throws and missed 10, and Houston was still right in it at the end because Corey Brewer is a superhero. There are some worries to take away from that game, but also some reasons to be hopeful. The Grizzlies and Blazers remain in striking distance, the 2nd seed and two rounds of homecourt are still on the table, and Dwight Howard is coming back soon. The only thing to do now is to win in Utah tomorrow.