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The Rockets Daily – April 14, 2014

Rooting Interest – Last night in Portland, the Blazers beat the Golden State Warriors in overtime, 117-119.  And be sure, this game is absolutely deserving of discussion on a Houston Rockets forum.  It was perhaps the first time all season that I openly rooted for the Warriors, always afraid Steph Curry would end up in a first round matchup with the Rockets.  But with just two games remaining on Houston’s schedule and one for Portland, the Rockets are in a position where if the Blazers win their final game at home against the nothing-to-play-for Clippers, and the Rockets can’t beat either San Antonio or New Orleans, Portland will end up hosting the first-round and not Houston.

It would be devastating from psychological standpoint, if not a strategical one, for the Rockets to play so much of the season in the upper-tier of the Western Conference, only to falter at the end and find themselves on the road for Game 1.  And the Rockets aren’t exactly going into the playoffs under ideal conditions.  The team peaked a month ago, losing only two games in February, while going 15-2 at one point.  But since April arrived they have been a mediocre .500 club.  Now, on the precipice of the playoffs, the Rockets find themselves injured (Howard, Parsons and Beverley have all missed games) and tired (Houston is the only team with two players, Harden and Parsons, in the top-ten in minutes played).  And with the Blazers victory last night, there will be no rest for the weary. 

The Rockets (possibly sans Parsons) are forced to go all-out tonight against the Spurs.  And while a win would lock up the 4-seed and some much needed rest in their final game, a loss would send them to New Orleans with homecourt on the line.  Thankfully, the ‘Cans will be without His Excellency Anthony Davis and a few other rotation players, but as our own Forrest Walker pointed out, the Rockets (read: James Harden) could really use the rest.

And now it seems that the Spurs, despite having the 1-seed locked up, will be going full-bore tonight in Houston.  Add that to the suddenly long list of problems facing the Rockets.  But Houston is 3-0 against San Antonio this season and a win tonight would help ease a lot of concerns facing the team this past month.  Just win, baby.

Paper or Plastic – In Hickory-High’s newest weekly round table, they ask: What becomes a bigger playoff storyline– James Harden’s offense or James Harden’s defense?

Lewis: If Dwight Howard is able to play at near-peak levels, then nobody will notice Harden’s defense. If the Rockets play the Trail Blazers, Harden’s going to be able to destroy them on offense. In four games this season, he’s averaging 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists against them. If the Rockets draw the Warriors, there are only two teams Harden has averaged more points against this year – the Knicks and the Lakers. In the playoffs, being able to break down elite defenses and score is vital, and that’s what Harden does best. He disrupts. He just needs to make sure he isn’t a turnstile on the opposite end.

It’s already been said by almost anyone who watches the Rockets closely, but I must say it again: Harden is not as bad defensively as advertised.  His Clippers-mixtape went viral at the beginning of the season and has been low-hanging fruit for national pundits ever since.  Harden will never be a two-way force, but like some of the other Hickory-High guys said in the article, his problem is effort.  And I can’t imagine a scenario where James Freaking Harden’s effort will be lacking in the playoffs.

Speaking of Which – The Short Corner noticed a little bit of good amidst all of the Rockets’ recent struggles:

The James Harden of the past few weeks has been fully enabled — playing huge minutes for a Rockets team without both Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley and thus very much in need of bulk scoring to overcome its defensive limitations. The massive stat lines that have resulted have been met with shockingly little fanfare. There are bigger picture issues to sort out as the playoffs near, but the work Harden has done of late is an absurdly exaggerated version of his already terrific play. My favorite bit: Harden has somehow attempted 111 free throws in his last eight games — almost 14 a night. Knicks point guard Raymond Felton, by contrast, has attempted 114 free throws this entire season.

The little fanfare is understandable.  The Pacers collapse has been fascinating; the Spurs run has been predictable but amazing; the race for the 8-seed in the East has been mesmerizing.  That last part may not have been “mesmerizing”, but watching the Knicks blow it sure was enjoyable.

And I knew Harden was playing well despite the Rockets’ downward arc lately, but I didn’t realize just how stellar he’s been.  For the month of April (8 games), Harden has averaged 38.6 mpg, 29 ppg on 43%FG and 40%3pt, with almost 5 rpg and 9 apg and 2.5 (!!!) spg.  Not to mention he’s been in Rambo-level attack mode, getting to the line over 13 times a game and making almost 90% of his free throws.

Harden hasn’t been quite as sharp as he was when Houston was peaking in February and March, but that is attributable to the lack of help he has had while missing such valuable teammates.  His shooting numbers are down slightly from those good ole days, but with Parsons banged up and Lin in a permanent funk, Harden has been responsible for most of the offense.

Unless Wes Matthews turns into Dennis Johnson 2.0, I think it’s safe to say Harden’s offense will be a bigger first-round storyline than his defense.

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