An eventful 10 years
Ranking the ten best Rockets games from this past decade
Despite not winning a championship, the Houston Rockets have delivered some quality basketball to its' fans over the past ten years. Whether it's the playoffs or regular season, the Rockets have packed in some really entertaining moments in a relatively short amount of time. So today, I'm going to rank what I consider to be the ten greatest Rockets' games over the last decade. This won't be the last time you see these games mentioned as I will refer back to them for other projects.
So without further ado, here's the list. Any and all disagreements are welcome.
10. Houston Rockets @ Detroit Pistons (October 31, 2012)
James Harden Houston Rockets Debut - 37 Points, 12 Assists www.youtube.com
You can take a guess as to why this made the list. Okay, I'll spoil it for you: this was James Harden's first game in a Houston Rockets' uniform after general manager Daryl Morey finally cashed in his treasure trove of assets (at the time) to acquire him. Houston famously did not give Harden his max contract extension until the day of this game. Harden would go on to tally 37 points, 12 assists, 6 rebounds, 4 steals, and 1 block on 14 of 25 shooting from the field and 4 of 10 from three-point range in Houston's 105-96 victory.
The importance of this game cannot go understated. After years of mediocrity following the Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady seasons, Rockets fans were starved for a superstar. Morey had been hoarding max cap space while doing these three-quarters-for-a dollar type trades to build a war chest of assets, but stars weren't becoming available. And if they were available, they weren't choosing Houston (Chris Bosh is a famous example of many). This culminated in the famous summer of 2012 where Houston was perhaps the most active and aggressive team in the league and chased the likes of Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum before finally choosing to shift to a traditional rebuild the following year.
And then, this happened.
The Rockets were clearly confident that James Harden was the cornerstone piece they so badly needed, but many were skeptical. History has forgotten how many people had doubts about Harden being that kind of star. You don't have to look further than the replies to the Adrian Wojnarowski tweet reporting the trade. So it was important that Harden have a good showing and man, did he ever.
9. Houston Rockets @ Golden State Warriors (December 1, 2016)
Houston Rockets vs Golden State Warriors | Full Game Highlights Dec 1, 2016 2016 17 NBA Season youtu.be
Many may not remember this game, but I highly recommend going back and watching it because it was the height of what I like to call the "fun Rockets". That's not to say the Rockets aren't fun now, but that particular team was a joy to watch because it was after the dark 2015-16 season and before the team had actual title aspirations. It was Mike D'Antoni's first season with the team, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon had just signed on, and the team just fit together effortlessly.
Sure the Rockets were going to do everything they could do to compete for a title, but that season felt more about getting back to being respectable and having a good time doing it. D'Antoni had resurrected his reputation for being a genius offensive coach and Harden put himself back on the map as a perennial MVP candidate.
This game in particular was really enjoyable because it was Houston's first crack at the Golden State Warriors in the D'Antoni era. Coming off their second straight Finals appearance, the Warriors had just signed Kevin Durant and seemed invincible, but the Rockets didn't view them that way. This season, Houston believed if they could get hot at the right moment from three-point range, they could beat any team in the league.
And this game was an example of that. The Rockets defeated the Warriors in double overtime on the backs of great shooting from Ryan Anderson (5 of 10 from three-point range), Eric Gordon (4 of 9), and Sam Dekker (2 of 3). James Harden had 29 points, 15 rebounds, and 13 assists (Harden's statlines from this season are crazy).
You'll see the Warriors show up at least one more time on this list.
8. Houston Rockets vs New York Knicks (December 31, 2016)
Heading into this game, the conversation around the MVP race between Russell Westbrook and James Harden was starting the heat up. Every night felt like a contest of who could put up the more eye-popping statline. What's incredible about this game that a lot of people forget is Harden had just played a game against the Clippers the night before and posted a ridiculous line of 30 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists, 5 steals, and 2 blocks on 10 of 15 shooting from the field and 2 of 5 shooting from three-point range.
So for Harden to come back the next day was top it with a line of 53 points, 17 assists, and 16 rebounds on 14 of 26 shooting from the field and 9 of 16 shooting from three-point range was just a sign of how special a season he was having. The Rockets were also pretty banged up at the time, missing starters Patrick Beverley and Clint Capela. Harden didn't play 42 minutes on the second half of a back-to-back because he wanted to - the Rockets needed every hit of this performance from him to secure the win.
7. Houston Rockets @ Portland Trail Blazers (December 9, 2017)
Portland Trail Blazers vs Houston Rockets - Full Game Highlights - December 9, 2017 www.youtube.com
For some context, this was Chris Paul's first season with the Rockets it was off to a great start (19-4). However, when Paul returned from his early season injury, the Rockets were blowing a lot of opponents out. This obviously isn't a bad thing, but since it seemed Paul and James Harden were working so well for the first three quarters of games, questions started to arise as to whether to to could work together in crunch time. However illogical those questions sounded, as this game approached, the voices grew louder as Houston continued to beat opponents by double-digits with regularity.
But the Trail Blazers, having started the season a little dicey (13-11), would not let up. It was 62-62 at halftime and Portland absolutely smoked Houston in the third quarter (36-22). For Houston, this was it - put up or shut up. Even though if they lost this game they'd fall to a more than fine 19-5 record, the crunch time skeptics would grow even louder. So the Rockets had to respond if they didn't want to hear confirmation bias for the next 24 hours.
And respond they did. From the 7:02 mark on, Harden and Paul took turns absolutely eviscerating Portland's perimeter defense. Whether it was Noah Vonleh, Evan Turner, or Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers did not have anybody who could credibly stay in front of the two. It wasn't as if both of them got really hot from three-point range or anything like that. Paul and Harden were just taking turns shaking their defenders and driving to the cup while the other person spaced the floor. It was a preview of the direct, one-on-one isolation that drove Houston to so much success that season (65 wins and the Western Conference Finals).
6. Houston Rockets vs. Orlando Magic (January 30, 2018)
James Harden UNREAL Triple-Double Highlights vs Magic (2018.01.30) - 60 Points, 11 Ast, 10 Reb! www.youtube.com
So for this one, the Rockets entered the game pretty short-handed. Trevor Ariza and Chris Paul were both out and ten minutes into the game, Eric Gordon left the game with an injury. James Harden was essentially left to fend for his own and though the opponent was unimpressive, he absolutely stole the show. He was already the front-runner by this point, but this game helped solidify James Harden's MVP campaign.
Harden tallied a remarkable 60 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, and 4 steals on 19 of 30 shooting from the field and 5 of 14 shooting from three-point range. He'd been flirting with it for a while, but Harden had finally passed Calvin Murphy for the highest scoring game in a Houston Rockets' uniform. It was fitting that this game was in the Toyota Center too, because not only was Murphy there to congratulate him after the game, the entire crowd knew they were witnessing something historic and they erupted when Harden hit the go-ahead three.
Ironically, at that point of the game, Houston really needed that three to clinch the game. It was an honest 60-point triple double.
5. Houston Rockets @ Golden State Warriors (October 17, 2017)
It can't be overstated how perfect it was of the NBA to schedule this game on the opening night of the season. Daryl Morey and the Rockets had talked all summer about how they designed this team to combat the Golden State Warriors and there was a lot of build up. People wanted to see how Chris Paul and James Harden would look together, how the additions of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute would slide in, and if the Rockets could defend well enough to seriously go at the Warriors. It was the kind of opening night booking you'd expect to see out of a pro wrestling promoter.
And then, the Warriors opened up the game on a 22-9 run. It was the kind of run you'd expect to see the Warriors pull off in the third quarter, not the first quarter and it was the kind of run that most teams get buried under. However, we got to see the resiliency of this team as they did not falter and quickly tied the game up 24-24. By the way, Eric Gordon looked fantastic - the best he's ever looked in his career. He was springy, driving to the rim frequently, and it was really fun to watch him explode in this one (24 points, 9 of 16 from the field).
Unfortunately for Houston, Chris Paul injured his hamstring early in the game and essentially played on one leg for the remainder. We wouldn't see Paul again for about a month into the season. James Harden did a fine job picking up the slack though, tallying 27 points, 11 assists, and 6 rebounds on 10 of 23 shooting from the field and 4 of 9 shooting from three-point range. Defensively, the Rockets looked about as good as they've ever looked. They forced the Warriors into an ugly, one-on-one war of attrition don the stretch of the fourth quarter and it would go on to be a preview of what we'd see in the Western Conference Finals that year.
4. Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors (Game 5, Western Conference Finals - May 24, 2018)
Golden State Warriors vs Houston Rockets Full Game Highlights / Game 5 / 2018 NBA Playoffs www.youtube.com
The final minutes of this game will without a doubt go down as the most bittersweet moment of Rockets' franchise history. Because while it looked like the Rockets would escape Toyota Center with a decisive 3-2 series lead over the Warriors, after Chris Paul got hurt, you could feel air coming out of the balloon. For people who followed the Rockets closely that year, you knew that if Chris Paul's injury was as bad as it looked in the moment, the series was over and Houston's chances of a championship along with it.
A lot of revisionist history is done about this series. Not only was Paul the stabilizer for Houston all series long, he had also played exceptionally well (20 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals in this game alone). When things got tight, the offense ran through Paul as he had the most experience and he was the safest decision maker on the team. This idea that Andre Iguodala was ever as close of importance to the Warriors as Paul was to the Rockets is laughable and intellectually dishonest. Paul was the second best player on the Rockets and it's not even close. Andre Iguodala was, at best, the fifth best player on a Warriors team that touted Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
Nevertheless, this game was awesome and it was probably the closest Houston's been to championship this decade.
3. Houston Rockets @ Los Angeles Clippers (Western Conference Semifinals, Game 6 - May 17, 2015)
Houston Rockets incredible Game 6 comeback - Craig Ackerman calls www.youtube.com
By now, double-digit comebacks like this have become more normal in the modern NBA. However, this is probably the game that started it all and there's a reason that we're still talking about it five years later. This is the famous "Is Kevin McHale benching James Harden right now?" game, it's the "Hold on. How many three-pointers has Josh Smith hit?" game, and it's the game where Houston went from a 19-point deficit with 2:16 left in the third quarter to winning the game 119-107. It may be the wildest momentum swing in NBA history. This game may deserve it's own oral history, but I'll try to do it justice with a few paragraphs.
Let's start with James Harden getting benched late in the third quarter. As a team, the Rockets looked completely out of it, including Harden, who had just gone 0-7 from the field (mostly jump shots) before being yanked by McHale for in-favor of Trevor Ariza. The Rockets were down 17 at this point. This is where Terrence Jones proceeds to score 5 out of Houston's next 7 points to bring the Clippers' lead down to 10 and everyone starts to perk up a little bit in a "Oh, I don't know what the hell's going on here, but it's interesting" kind of way.
The Rockets end the third quarter down 13 and this is presumably where the Clippers would put Houston away, but that didn't happen. Corey Brewer opened up the quarter scoring 9 out of Houston's 12 points to bring the score to 91-100 with 7:29 remaining. Still, the Clippers were in pretty good position to close this out and they hadn't really gotten going offensively to this point. Josh Smith, who had just entered the game a while ago, proceeds to score or assist on 16 of the Rockets' next 22 points, giving them a decisive 9-point lead with just 1:01 remaining. Nine of these points were three-pointers, which Smith had shot a putrid 31.6% on all season. Josh Smith and Corey Brewer were the catalysts to Houston's' first Western Conference birth in nearly 20 years. It was truly a strange game, but very exciting.
2. Houston Rockets vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (March 1, 2015)
James Harden vs. LeBron James SICK DUEL! Full Highlights [3.01.2015] - Cavaliers vs. Rockets www.youtube.com
There was a split second where I thought of putting this game at the top of the list and some could credibly argue it belongs there. Being in the building at that time, it truly felt like a coronation for one of the game's next best players in James Harden. It was the moment where it became clear to me that Harden could be the best player on a championship team. And funny enough, when I ask other reporters or fans about this, they point to this game as well.
It was the first time that Harden went toe-to-toe with the game's best player and came out on top. And this felt like a personal battle. Harden and James were battling each other all night in different forms. The two took turns guarding each other at the end of the game, they took it personal when they saw the other person guarding them, and there was even a moment where they had to be broken up. Harden finished with 33 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals and James finished with 37 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks.
The moment also felt important. It was a Sunday afternoon, ABC game, long after football season had ended. Harden and James were also battling for positioning in the MVP race at the time. With new additions Corey Brewer and Josh Smith in hand, the Rockets were rolling and this was easily Harden's best season as a player up until that point. The Rockets added to the trash talk on social media after the game as well.
1. Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors (January 4, 2019)
Full Game Recap: Rockets vs Warriors | Overtime Thriller In Oracle www.youtube.com
It's hard not to have this as the most entertaining Rockets' game of the decade. James Harden was on a ridiculous scoring tear and the Rockets and Warriors had already developed a strong back-and-forth history by this point so the game was highly anticipated, regardless of who was healthy or not. And for the Rockets, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon were out with injury leaving Harden and newly acquired guard Austin Rivers with a majority of the ball-handling responsibilities. For the Warriors, there were no significant injuries on the roster to speak of.
This was expected to be a blowout, and for the first half, it was. The Warriors held a strong 70-53 lead over the Rockets and it looked like Houston was going to have to pack it in early. However, in the third quarter, all hell broke loose. Harden played the entire quarter, scoring 13 points on 4 of 8 shooting from the field and 3 of 6 shooting from three-point range. The Rockets outscored the Warriors 39 to 28 and they carried that momentum into the fourth quarter, outscoring Golden State 27-21 and forcing it to overtime. By this point, all of the Rockets were tired, including Harden, who was 2 for 7 from the field in the fourth quarter.
But overtime was one of the ages, as Harden played all five minutes, scoring 11 points, shooting 3 for 4 from three-point range, including the most important three. With four seconds left, the ball was inbounded to Harden, who went on to hit this ridiculous shot over the outstretched arms of All-NBA defender Klay Thompson and former defensive player of the year, Draymond Green.
James Harden EPIC Game-Winning Shot | Rockets vs Warriors - January 3, 2019 www.youtube.com
It was one of the crazier, well-defended shots made during the regular season and it'll probably playing on a loop years after Harden decides to hang it up.