Rockets 102, Thunder 99 - First. Team. All. Defense.

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The second round of the battle of the MVP candidates took place yet again from Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City as James Harden went up against former teammate Russell Westbrook in a tough game. The Thunder won the first matchup 105 – 103, but the Rockets would rebounded to win this one in an ugly, ugly affair.

The Rockets opened in an interesting fashion, getting Clint Capela involved as a scorer. He scored Houston’s first seven points off three made baskets in the paint (one of which was a tough hook shot over seven-foot-tall Steven Adams). Then, the Rockets went cold and the game would become an ugly slog for the rest of the first half. Houston only hit three of their first 11 shot attempts from the field, and went on to shoot just 33.3% for the first period (including only hitting one of seven from the three-point line).

Some early positives for the Rockets included the play of Patrick Beverley and Sam Dekker, two guys who will always bring energy to an ugly game. Beverley, arch nemesis of the Oklahoma City Thunder, brought the hustle early, snatching six rebounds (three of them on the offensive end), dishing out five assists, and forcing a steal. Also, in classic pesky Bev fashion, he drew a charge on Russell Westbrook on a routine inbounds play just 36 seconds into the game. That drew the ire of OKC fans in the building.

Sam Dekker continues to emerge as a rotation player in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, bringing a slashing skillset that has led to very athletic plays this season. Near the end of the first quarter, Dekker dropped the hammer in transition, posterizing Enes Kanter down to the hardwood.

The battle of the superstars would not get off to a good start, despite the first half numbers that had both guys on triple-double alert. James Harden posted eight points, six rebounds, and seven assists, but only shot 27% in the first half. In fact, Harden’s first field goal didn’t come until seven minutes into the second quarter, after a missed shot by Westbrook ignited a fastbreak opportunity.

Russell Westbrook, who went into Friday just one triple-double shy of tying Michael Jordan’s streak of most consecutive games with such a feat (seven games), recorded 10 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists by halftime. He would record his seventh straight triple-double early in the fourth quarter.

The Rockets opened the third quarter on a 10-5 run, thanks to Capela hitting a couple of layups and Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson each hitting a three. Anderson, who has been in a shooting slump for several games now, hit three from beyond the arc in the period – helping the Rockets build a double-digit lead. Despite OKC cutting an eleven-point lead down to three, the Rockets finished the quarter up by nine (86-77).

Houston’s second unit opened the fourth quarter with incredible energy and defense. Montrezl Harrell (who was a great spark off the bench Friday night) played solid defense on the first two possessions of the quarter, and kept possessions alive on the boards. A defensive sequence saw Houston’s wings fly around the court to force OKC into a shot clock violation, building the Rockets’ lead to 13.

Following a controversial call that gave a ball that went off of Andre Roberson back to the Thunder, OKC went on a 10-1 run that cut Houston’s lead down to four. The Rockets went ice cold in the fourth, going scoreless from the field for over six minutes (they only scored 16 in the final period). The lead was eventually cut down to two and it looked like the Rockets were about to collapse.

The final three minutes saw a lot of action from the two MVP candidates as they traded baskets and free throws until there was 1:45 left in the game (the Rockets were up 98-97). Then, defense and hustle took over for both teams. Westbrook missed a layup, which led to Harden trying to draw a foul on a three-point attempt. There was no call, but Ryan Anderson hauled in the airball and converted a layup to give Houston a 100-97 lead. Westbrook was then fouled to get the score to 100-99.

On the next possession, Harden once again tried to draw a foul on a drive to the basket, but there was no call and OKC went on a fastbreak. Victor Oladipo missed the easy layup, but Nene couldn’t secure the rebound for the Rockets and OKC got the ball with 16.9 seconds left.

Patrick Beverley, who has a contentious history with Russell Westbrook (to put it mildly) played EXCELLENT isolation defense on Russ to force a bad airball. Ariza secured the rebound and got fouled as Houston’s bench hounded Beverley with cheers for making the stop. Ariza made both free throws, and OKC had one last chance to tie the game with five seconds left.

Anthony Morrow threw up an airball three-point attempt of his own and the rebound went to none other than Patrick Beverley. The Rockets escaped, despite a total collapse.

Despite both superstars putting up big numbers, neither guy played very well. Harden shot 26% from the field (18% from the three) and committed eight turnovers. Westbrook also committed eight turnovers and shot 32% from the field (missing all seven of his three-point attempts). This game came down to defense and winning the hustle plays.

The Rockets have now won five games in a row and ten of their last twelve. They’ll face this Thunder team again in Houston on January 5, 2017. Tomorrow, they head back to Houston to take on the floundering Dallas Mavericks.

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.

Friday’s game ball goes to Patrick Beverley.

In a game with two MVP candidates, this game – and this whole season – rode on the wave of Beverley’s hustle and the heart he brings to this team. The Rockets have won ten of their last twelve, and it should be no surprise that those games coincide with Pat’s return from injury.

His numbers aren’t flashy (although, twelve rebounds is nothing to scoff at), but he was essential to the Rockets winning this game. He shut down one of the best players in the sport and fought to secure the final rebound of the game – much in the same way he secured this game ball.

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