Rockets 101, Spurs 99 - Harden wills Rockets to tough win

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On Wednesday, the Houston Rockets finally closed out a five game road trip just a few hours West of Toyota Center. The finale was set in San Antonio – home to one of the greatest organizations in all of sports and one of the toughest matchups for any team in the NBA. Fortunately, the Spurs couldn’t slow down James Harden and head coach Mike D’Antoni’s dynamic offense, and the Rockets won a tight one 101-99.

Seconds after the Rockets won the tip, James Harden hit Clint Capela with a perfect lob pass that resulted in an easy alley-oop. This play was indicative of what was to come for Harden and the Rockets in the first half as the ‘Beard’ did whatever he wanted on the offensive side of the floor. A mastermind of the pick-and-roll, Harden exploited San Antonio’s slow-footed big men (especially 36 year-old Pau Gasol) to nine points and six assists in the first quarter. Whether in the pick-and-roll or in transition, Harden made it his mission to capitalize on the Gasol match-up.

The Rockets played some physical defense in the first that held the Spurs to just 33% from the field and, more importantly, kept LaMarcus Aldridge altogether scoreless. Thinking back to the 2014 Western Conference Quarter-Finals where Aldridge was on fire against the Rockets, this was a welcome development. Aside from Kawhi Leonard scoring 10 points, the Spurs couldn’t get much done offensively in the opening period. The Rockets led 33-24.

The second period opened with a strong showing from Houston’s troublesome second unit. A lineup of Tyler Ennis, Eric Gordon, KJ McDaniels, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell improved the lead to 13 – thanks to continued great defense and hot shooting. The Spurs’ second unit wasn’t caught off guard, however, as they quickly conjured up an 8-0 run and took the lead. The quarter was tightly contested the rest of the way, and the Rockets escaped into halftime with a lead – 63-60 – following a buzzer beating three from Sam Dekker.

The first half was a coming-out-party of sorts for Dekker, who missed the majority of last season with a back injury. He brought a ton of energy and put up seven quick points on perfect shooting (including a three-pointer and two layups on the receiving end of Harden assists). He earned himself the most meaningful playing time of his career (he played 18 minutes when the Rockets blew out the Knicks in New York). He finished the game with 10 points on 80% shooting (making both of his threes) and seven rebounds.

The second half started in a much more lethargic manner, which seemed to affect the Rockets’ outside shooting. They missed 10 of 11 shots from beyond the arc in the quarter. Luckily for Houston, the Spurs also struggled to score early in the quarter and the Rockets managed to build an 11-point lead. Once again, the Spurs cut into the lead by attacking the offensive glass (the Rockets won the battle of the boards by game’s end).

The fourth quarter started with a crucial stretch for the Rockets, who were up only five points in San Antonio on the fifth game of a long road trip. Harden always gets his rest in the first half of the second and fourth quarters, but have had to alter those plans often because the Rockets just can’t function when he’s not on the floor. That was yet again the case on Wednesday as the Spurs forced several turnovers and immediately went on an 8-1 run. Harden was checked back into the game after less than two and a half minutes of rest.

For basketball fans (regardless of what team you root for), the fourth quarter was a blast of entertainment and good execution on both ends of the floor. The superstars really showed out in this game as Harden and Kawhi went back and forth to lead their team when it seemed no one else could. In Houston’s case, Harden had some help from Ryan Anderson – who was, once again, very active rebounding the ball and who hit two deep threes to give the Rockets some breathing room in a tense game.

Kawhi Leonard was magnificent for the Spurs. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year will be in the running for MVP this season, and it’s hard to argue with the way he’s played so far. On Wednesday, Kawhi lit the Rockets up for 34 points (hitting 4/6 from behind the three-point line) and seven rebounds. Patty Mills, who started at point guard in place of the injured Tony Parker, managed to chip in eight points and ten assists.

Houston’s defensive effort must be credited for the win on Wednesday. They held San Antonio to just 39% shooting from the field and allowed only three Spurs to score double digits (Kawhi, Aldridge, David Lee). LaMarcus Aldridge’s struggles were perhaps the main reason why the Rockets won this game. He was held to just 14 points on 15 shot attempts and five rebounds.

The Rockets are finally rid of this long road trip and will head back to Houston to once again face this San Antonio team on Friday. From now until Thanksgiving, the Rockets will play four of six in Toyota Center - albeit against tough teams.

Game Ball 

This is a segment of the game recaps that will give the proverbial game ball to a player that proved to be most valuable to the Rockets on a given night. This award won’t necessarily go to the player that puts up the best numbers, but to the player that made the greatest impact on the team – tangible or intangible.

Wednesday’s game ball goes to James Harden.

If the Rockets didn’t absolutely fall apart when Harden went to the bench, the game ball might have gone to Ryan Anderson or even Sam Dekker (had he done more in the second half), but this one HAS to go to James.

He finished the game with 24 points, 15 assists, and 12 rebounds – his first triple-double of the season. Unfortunately, he also finished with eight turnovers and over 40 minutes played. Those numbers are indicative of just how much the Rockets rely on Harden to win games. Coach D’Antoni is going to have to figure out a way to bolster his bench production to keep Harden well rested throughout this grind of a season. Harden was clearly gassed towards the end of this game, and his health and freshness are the key for the Rockets to have any postseason success.

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