Stepping up to the plate
Austin Rivers shines in Rockets' 129-112 victory over Kings
It's easy to forget about Austin Rivers. He comes off the bench, he only really plays about 20 minutes a game when the Rockets are at full health, and he plays in a crowded guard rotation next to James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Gordon. So when he helps carry Houston to a blowout victory over the Sacramento Kings, it can take you by surprise. On Sunday night, Rivers tallied a career-high 41 points on a ridiculous 87.2% true shooting as the Rockets defeated the Kings 129-112.
"He was just aggressive from the beginning of the game," noted James Harden after the game. "I think what got him started was his defense. He played really good defense. And then offensively, he was just attack mode."
As the Rockets got off to a poor first quarter (trailed the Kings 36-23), Austin Rivers was the only constant that was keeping Houston in the game. By halftime, Rivers had 19 points on 7 of 8 shooting from the field and 4 of 5 shooting from three-point range and the Rockets had regained the lead.
"He's been going in the morning to the gym shooting and working on his jumpshot," continued Harden. "So it kind of gave him that confidence. And tonight obviously with no Russ and no Eric, he needed to be a little bit more aggressive and he did that tonight."
The key point here is obviously that Rivers did this on a night where Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon were not in the rotation. Rivers didn't become good at scoring the basketball overnight, but the combination of Harden, Westbrook, and Gordon take away the need for Rivers to have nights like this. But when one or two of those guys go down with injury, Rivers has historically seen a huge spike in usage and playmaking responsibility. He's thrived in those environments.
"It's not easy, you know?" Rivers said after the game. "You play with two of the best guards in the NBA. Obviously, they have the ball in their hands a lot. So on this team you try to play your role. That's what I do. I try to play my role everyday."
One may see this as a balancing act that the Rockets need to juggle better, but Houston doesn't view it that way. They enjoy the idea of having multiple ball handlers, playmakers, and creators on the floor at all times. It's what makes them unique and gives them the ability to play this way. If one of the guards is struggling or unavailable, they know that they have other capable guys at the ready to come in and fill bigger roles. They don't need Austin Rivers to play like this, and that's perhaps what makes him the team's greatest luxury.
"Obviously it's good," Mike D'Antoni said of his bench's ability to create. "We're pretty deep. Once we get Russell and Eric back, we'll have 9 guys that will rotate in and out. The defense we want to play and the pace we want to play at, we'll need about 9. It's good to know that we can count on those guys."
And it's not just D'Antoni who feels this way. Rockets players certainly appreciate having Rivers' as a weapon in their back pocket. In fact, during the game, James Harden and Russell Westbrook were urging Rivers to keep attacking and take advantage of the opportunity. It's something Rivers says he values deeply.
"That even makes me more confident," Rivers said of the interaction. "Them pushing me really really helps me be more confident in myself. And when you have a guy like James Harden telling you to go, and Russell telling you to go, no one can stop you. That's coming from two of the best players in the NBA. I don't know what else you need."
It's funny - although Rivers has this ability to score 15 points a game if he were called upon to do it, the Rockets really only need him to essentially be a 3-and-D point guard. His one-on-one defense is something Rivers probably doesn't get enough credit for, but his teammates know what he brings to the table on that end of the floor.
"Well we do need him to score when his number's called and he gets opportunities to," said Harden. "Obviously Austin can score but he's a good defender. He just creates opportunity defensively for our team."
And that's what Rivers was for the Rockets on Sunday night. Of course he was scoring the ball well, but his defensive intensity helped Houston sharpen up as a team and led to several minutes with the Kings not scoring. That's the version of Rivers the Rockets will need come playoff time if everyone is healthy: a steady force in the background of Houston's guard rotation that doesn't mind being out of the spotlight. He doesn't need a night like this to prove that he can score the basketball - his teammates already know what he's capable of.
"I don't play for the record books," said Rivers. "I don't play for stats. I play to help my team win. And when you do that and things like that kind of come naturally, it's the best way to go about it. "