Rockets 137, Thunder 125 - Role Players Shine in MVP Battle

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To say the Rockets caught fire in the first half of this game would be a gross understatement. Anytime a team shoots over 70% from the field, you can expect a fun basketball game – well, assuming you’re a fan of the team draining nearly every shot they take. After opening the game on a 9-0 run, the Rockets defense eased up a bit and OKC managed to keep this game close in the first quarter. In fact, both teams shot the ball extremely well in the opening period as the Rockets hit two-thirds of their shots from the field and the Thunder shot a more-than-respectable 57%. Despite OKC’s offensive execution taking over late in the first (and Westbrook putting up incredible stats), the Rockets held a 37-31 lead at the end of the first.

The second quarter is where things really took off in the Rockets favor. With Harden getting his usual rest to start the period, Houston’s second unit managed to build and maintain a nine-point lead. It didn’t matter that Houston’s MVP candidate was sitting on the bench; the Rockets were getting whatever they wanted offensively and Toyota Center came unglued when Nene punctuated a transition opportunity with a beautiful Eurostep layup. Someone’s been watching Harden’s game film...

Harden checked back into the game and the Rockets quickly doubled up on their lead, extending it to as much as 20 by halftime. The Rockets were led by a much-more-comfortable-in-the-offense Lou Williams and Trevor Ariza, who combined for 34 points on 100% shooting (including eight three-pointers) until Ariza missed a buzzer-beating heave from midcourt that very nearly went in. Aside from Patrick Beverley, who went scoreless in the game, no Rocket that saw the floor scored less than seven points. Even Sam Dekker, who has hit the rookie wall in depressing fashion, got back-to-back and-one opportunities with tough finishes in traffic.

A lethargic start to the second half allowed OKC to briefly close the gap to 12 points. Given that the Rockets blew an 18-point halftime lead the last time they played the Thunder, it would be understandable if Rockets fans grew nervous about blowing another big lead. But never fear, as has happened many times this season, Eric Gordon was here to save the day with three makes from deep that helped the Rockets build the lead back up to 18. Lou stayed on fire as well, hitting a couple of threes, and staying perfect from the field. After a buzzer-beating three from Harden in transition, the Rockets went into the final period with a 113-88 lead.

The Rockets eased up again in the fourth quarter and weren’t quite able to put OKC away until the final moments. The Thunder had cut the lead down to 13 with three minutes left, and got as close as within eight, but it was too little, too late for the Thunder. The fourth period proved to be more about padding stats than miraculous comebacks, which is important in this awards race the Rockets find themselves in. Russell Westbrook got his usual triple-double (39 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds), James Harden had 22 points and 12 assists, plus leading Sixth Man of the Year candidates Lou Williams and Eric Gordon brought their scoring totals to 31 and 24, respectively.

This was maybe the most complete win of the season for the Rockets, and on national TV no less. They shot 63.3% from the field and 51.3% from beyond the arc (20/39). Six Rockets scored in double figures (Sam Dekker almost did with his eight points), and four players (Lou, Gordon, Ariza, and Harden) scored at least 22.

The Rockets got a bit of scare in the final minute of the game when Harden went down hard after a made layup, and stayed on the hardwood clutching his previously injured wrist. After the game, he told ESPN’s Lisa Salters that “[he’ll] be alright” and that he just needs ice, but with the NBA Playoffs just a few weeks away, this will be a situation to keep an eye on.

The Rockets look to win their fourth straight on Tuesday when the Golden State Warriors make a trip to Houston - another must see battle of the league's elite.

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.

Sunday’s game ball goes to Lou Williams.

Lou Williams’ shooting has been inconsistent since being traded to Houston, but games like Sunday are why he can single-handedly improve the Rockets’ chances at winning a championship. Scoring 31 points on an insane 73.3% (11/15) shooting from the field, including seven threes, is exactly what the Rockets need from a second unit that was already very strong.

The Sixth Man of the Year trophy seems certain to make a home in Houston this year, but it’s not certain as to who will be hoisting it up. After Sunday, Eric Gordon might be feeling Lou creeping up on his heels.

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