Rockets 99, Pistons 96 - Make. Your. Free. Throws.


On October 31, 2012, just three days after Daryl Morey pulled off the biggest move of his career, James Harden made his Houston Rockets debut at the Palace of Auburn Hills and absolutely torched the Pistons to the tune of 37 points and 12 assists. Last season he averaged a triple-double in two meetings with Detroit (31 points, 13 rebounds, and 10.5 assists), despite losing those games. Harden torched them again on Monday, but it wouldn’t come so easy.

The Rockets started the game in an absolute funk, turning the ball over and letting the Pistons shoot 62% from the field on their way to a 20-8 run in the first six minutes. Houston missed all six threes they took in the opening period (they wouldn’t make one until Corey Brewer – of all people – made one in the second) and couldn’t buy a basket. Ryan Anderson had six of Houston’s first eight points, but those weren’t easy to come by and were, quite frankly, lucky to have found the bottom of the net.

Credit the Pistons for setting the tone early. Andre Drummond, in particular, was very active defensively, getting his hands in the passing lanes and even forcing two turnovers on routine out-of-bounds plays. The Rockets struggled to contain him on the glass but managed to go on a 10-2 run to cut into the deficit. Beno Udrih, however, hit a buzzer beating three and the Pistons finished the first quarter with a 25-18 lead.

Houston’s staggered second unit of Pat Beverley/Eric Gordon/Corey Brewer/Sam Dekker/Clint Capela proved to be much more energetic and effective to open the second quarter as they forced turnovers, scored in transition, and actually made a few threes. Dekker is continuing to slowly emerge as an important role player, recording twelve points and three rebounds in just his first ten minutes of play. His versatility is something Coach D’Antoni is sure to take advantage of going forward.

The Rockets outscored the Pistons by 12 in the second quarter to give them a 51-46 lead at the half. It helps that the Rockets killed Detroit in the paint in the first half and that the Pistons’ leading scorer – Tobias Harris – picked up his third foul early in the second quarter, forcing him to sit for the majority of the first half.

In the third quarter, the Rockets looked much more like the team we’ve grown accustomed to, in terms of pace and style of play. Houston managed to build a ten-point lead and James Harden finally took over the game and looked like the MVP-caliber player he’s been this season. He scored 18 points in the third, while chipping in four assists and zero turnovers. He hit all four of his free throws, making him a perfect 10-for-10 for the game to that point.

James Harden’s free throws would not only become an issue in the fourth quarter, but they would become the story of an ugly game. With 2:15 left in a tie game (93-93), he drew a foul on a three-point attempt and missed the first two free throws – his first two free throw misses of the game. While Harden is a career 85% free-throw shooter and one of the best in the NBA at drawing fouls, he has struggled with them this year – hitting 82% thus far.

The Rockets made a stop and looked to their superstar to finish this game off and, after he hustled for a long offensive rebound, Harden drew a mismatch with Jon Leuer, he nailed a jumper to give the Rockets a 96-93 lead. A few possessions later, after the Pistons hit a lay-up off an offensive rebound, the Rockets inbounded the ball to Harden, who drew a foul with 15. 4 seconds left. Harden split the free throws.

With nine seconds left in the game, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drove to the basket and got fouled. He needed to sink both free throws to tie the game up, but he missed the second one. The Rockets got the ball back and barely managed to inbound the ball to Harden and, once again, he missed one of them. Andre Drummond, a dreadful free throw shooter got the rebound and Clint Capela immediately fouled him (which may or may not have been intentional). The Rockets were up by two.

Drummond missed them both and Harden got the rebound. He sprinted to the three-point line, ready to ice this game. He promptly missed the first, much to the chagrin of Rockets fans. He swished the second one and the Pistons missed a half-court heave to tie the game. The Rockets won by 99-96.

Despite the mess from the free throw line at the end of the game, this kind of win is encouraging for who the Rockets want to be this year – a championship contender that can win a home-court advantage in the Playoffs. To be that kind of team, you have to win the ugly, knock-em-out, drag-em-out games that this one turned out to be. When the offense fails to convert or your superstar struggles to put the game away, defense needs to be good enough to get the job done. On Monday, it was.

The Rockets will welcome the Toronto Raptors to Toyota Center on Wednesday.

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.

Monday’s game ball goes to James Harden.

If the Rockets had lost this game because James missed five of his last nine free throws, then that loss would no doubt be on his shoulders. With that logic in mind, he’s undoubtedly the reason the Rockets won this game and that the Rockets have managed a 9-5 record with a tough, travel-heavy schedule to start the season.

It may not have felt like it, but Harden was yet again on triple-double alert. He finished the game with 28 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists. Sam Dekker had a game-ball-worthy second quarter and Clint Capela is continuing to emerge as one of the most effective centers in the league, but Harden truly earned this one.

After the game, Harden was asked if he was concerned with how the Rockets have struggled to close out games this season. He responded that he wasn’t, laughed, and said, “I’ve got to make free throws, that’s all. Make free throws and win the game. It’s that simple.”

If only.

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