Rockets 107, Sixers 91: We Have Liftoff.

Did these Rockets of Houston cook? Yes. Yes they did (Shout out @HumbleTeej). Harden scored 31. Capela had 18 and 9. Paul had eight assists despite shooting poorly. This one was out of the Sixers’ reach by the end of the first quarter.

The Rockets treated us to a wire-to-wire victory over a quality opponent this evening. The defense looked strong, at times suffocating, holding the Sixers to 91 points total and just 44 in the first half. Simmons, Butler, Harris, and McConnell were each in double figures for the Sixers, but none of them shot particularly efficiently: Simmons went for 15 pts on 15 shots, Butler went for 19 on 18 shots, McConnell took 11 shots to score 13 points, and only Harris was soundly Team #MorePointsThanShots with 22 points on 15 attempts. Without Joel Embiid, it’s hard to tell whether this is a disappointing Sixers’ loss or an indication that the Rockets are rounding into form, but it sure felt nice to watch. I think I might be seriously considering thinking about beginning to let myself dream over here.

Even with Embiid out tonight, the Sixers still dominated the rebounding battle, 59-43. Turnovers, steals, and assists were even enough, but the Sixers were cold from the three point line, making only 3 of their 26 attempts. It was tempting to consider this game over after the Rockets scored 37 points and finished the first quarter up by 16–but with how easily leads have been evaporating (for the Rockets and really much of the league) in this 3 point revolution, neither we viewers nor the Rockets could afford to let our respective guards down.

In fact, the poise with which the Rockets maintained the lead in the final three quarters of this game was impressive. None of the starters played more than 32 minutes (including 28 for Paul), and it seemed like every time the Sixers were about to make a run, Eric Gordon or Gerald Green nailed a timely three. Harden hit step-backs. Capela caught lobs. Outside of a short-lived injury scare with Harden’s wrist, the Rockets never looked worried or threatened whatsoever. After the game, Jalen Rose characterized them as a team that is “ascending in the western conference,” and they are, not merely in the standings, but in the minds of the fans and perhaps of their competitors as well. I find myself asking if they’ve finally flipped the switch. I sure hope they have.

The Eye Test

It would be easy to look at Austin Rivers’ stat line tonight and conclude that he had a mediocre game: 8 points on 4 of 9 shooting (0-2 from the 3 point line), a rebound, 2 assists and a steal. He was a plus 5 in 28 minutes of a 16-point blow out. But the eye test told a different story. His defense is always solid, and tonight was no exception. However, it’s his offense I want to highlight here.

Three words to describe his offense tonight: North and South. Rivers played downhill with bad intentions tonight, and it was seriously refreshing. He was aggressive as all-get-out, with “jab step, jab step, straight line sprint into the lane, all the way to the cup” type drives that kept the defense on their heels repeatedly. He missed his threes and a couple bunnies, but as far as I can tell, Rivers has proven to D’antoni that he deserves minutes whether he’s hitting shots or not, so it’s encouraging to see him refuse to settle for the catch and shoot threes that Harden and Paul create so prolifically. Look for more of this friskiness as Austin tries to play through a bit of a shooting slump.

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