THE ROCKETS REPORT
Big win over Warriors, Harden's return highlight critical 2-1 week for Rockets
The Rockets regained superstar James Harden this past week, but lost swingmen Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green Monday night for the remainder of the week. The effects of the latter seemingly went unnoticed, as Houston shook off an ugly Monday loss and followed with a double-digit blow out against Minnesota, culminating their week with a statement win against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The win gained ground against the No. 1 team in the conference, but the Rockets remain in second place by 3.5 games.
Game 42: Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers (L, 102-113)
Monday night kicked off the second half of the NBA season with a road game against the L.A. Clippers. Houston was without Chris Paul in their first meeting, dropping the first game at Houston. As a result, this was not only the first time Paul faced his old team, it was also the first time playing in front of Clippers fans in the Staples Center. As the P.A. announcer called his name in the starting lineup, Paul was met by his old fans with positive cheers and posters with well-wishes. As far as the game went, it was incredibly competitive throughout the first half. The Clippers would take their 59-56 lead from halftime and ride it all the way to the finish line, behind a 31 point performance from former Rocket Lou Williams and 29 points from Blake Griffin. Things would get heated late in the fourth however, and with tempers flaring, both Griffin and the Rockets own Trevor Ariza would be ejected before regulation. Reports surfaced following the game that the situation reached a point where Ariza and fellow Rocket swingman Gerald Green breached the Clippers locker room to confront Clippers point guard Austin Rivers and Griffin. Security escorted the players from the scene and both Rockets players were later suspended two games each.
Game 43: Rockets vs Minnesota Timberwolves (W, 116-98)
The Rockets returned home Thursday to take on the fourth best team in the Western Conference. In addition to Harden’s first game back from injury, this was the first matchup between Houston and the Timberwolves since Minnesota added Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson in the offseason. The first quarter was sloppy and tightly contested for the first 10 minutes, but a nine-point burst from Eric Gordon would conclude a 26-17 first quarter. The Timberwolves would never lead after the first and the Rockets would cruise to a huge victory, despite missing two key players in Ariza and Green. Harden’s performance was sloppy, going 3-15 from the field with 10 points. Gordon led Houston with 30 points total, including a halftime half-court, buzzer beater.
Game 44: Rockets vs Golden State Warriors (W, 116-108)
Saturday’s tilt was an incredibly important test against the the best team in the league. A win in this third matchup between the two teams would take the regular season series for either team, and a win by Houston in particular would legitimize their claims as a serious championship contender. Unlike the second matchup, both teams were at relatively full strength and the primetime matchup once again proved to be a great game. The Warriors took the court with a league-leading 13-game road winning streak, but Houston set the tone early as Harden shook off Thursday night’s rust and buried three straight three-pointers early in the first. After a 40-28 point first quarter by the Rockets, Golden State would rally to bring the game back to within 7 by halftime. As expected the matchup would come down to the final minute, but with 1:10 to go in the fourth, Harden would deliver a vicious step-back three point dagger to seal the win for the Rockets. Harden would finish with 22 points and 8 assists, while Paul would lead the way with 33 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists.
Tough Trio: A finally healthy Rockets squad took down the champs on Saturday, behind great performances from Harden, Clint Capela, and Paul. The win extended their streak to 17-0 when all three are on the court.
Houston’s past few weeks have been rougher than most, and this week looks to be no different. The Rockets will face an early challenge Monday night versus the Miami Heat (27-19), followed by an easy Wednesday matchup against the woeful Dallas Mavericks (15-31), a Friday tilt against a Pelicans team (24-21) that gave the Rockets a headache earlier in the season, and finishing with a Sunday contest against a 17-29 Suns team. Miami looks to be the toughest test this week, while a healthy Pelicans team could pose problems like they did in their first meeting. The only way I envision Dallas or Phoenix beating the Rockets is if they get caught looking ahead in some sort of trap game scenario. Ultimately I don’t see a completely healthy Rockets squad that returns Ariza and Green to the lineup losing more than one game this week. I predict a 3-1 week at worst if they stumble Monday, with the possibility of an undefeated week 15.