Fun game. Predictable ending.

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Shorthanded Rockets fall to Pelicans 127-112

Despite missing James Harden and Russell Westbrook, this was a fun basketball team to watch. I'm not sure you'll find one Rockets' fan that disagrees with that after how hard they battled against the Pelicans for three quarters. It's also not hard to imagine a world in which a team like this scraps for an eight seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket. However, the Rockets have bigger goals in mind which is why they prefer to have it business as usual with Harden and Westbrook.

Nonetheless, Houston put up a strong, balanced offensive attack against the Pelicans. The ball moved, half court flowed better, and the team played less predictable. The young player trifecta of Danuel House, Isaiah Hartenstein, Gary Clark, and Chris Clemons combined for 63 points, 25 rebounds, and 18 assists on 27 of 48 shooting. Every player got a chance to showcase their talents after rotting on the bench in favor of veteran players.

Eric Gordon returned against his former team after missing 22 consecutive games (arthroscopic knee surgery). You'd expect Gordon to have rust, but he seemed completely comfortable, scoring 20 points on 6 of 12 shooting from the field and 4 of 7 shooting from three-point range. Gordon did miss 4 of his 8 free throw attempts, but the Rockets ultimately ended up losing by so much and in so many other ways that it didn't end up mattering.

As a whole, the Rockets shot an impressive 52% from the field (42 of 81) and 15 of 39 from three-point range (38%) which kept them in the game. However, without Clint Capela and Tyson Chandler protecting the rim, their defense cratered, especially in the fourth quarter. Houston finished with a 129.3 defensive rating and allowed 41 points in the fourth quarter, ultimately leading to their demise tonight.

Star of the game: With Clint Capela missing his second straight game with a right heel contusion, Isaiah Hartenstein stepped up big time for the Rockets. Despite the loss, Hartenstein raked in 19 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks on 9 of 11 shooting from the field. Hartenstein has an important contract date coming up in early January, so these two games without Capela could mean huge for his financial future. It was important for him to play well on this back-to-back and to his credit, he did.

Honorable mention: It's become clear that after James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Danuel House has become Houston's third best ball handler - even better than Eric Gordon who returned tonight and had a nice game. House had 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists on 10 of 18 shooting from the field and 2 of 5 shooting from three-point range. It's not just how well House plays night in and night out that makes him stand out. It's the confidence level he has within himself to make plays on a veteran-laiden contender at just 26 years old that makes him an important role player for this team.

Key moment: The bottom really fell out for the Rockets in the fourth quarter where they allowed the Pelicans to outscore them 41 to 19 after leading for the first three quarters. Closing games like this are where players like Harden and Westbrook make their max contracts earned. We learned tonight that the team without Harden and Westbrook can be pretty good and scrapy, but much like the late 2000s Rockets' without Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, they have a firm ceiling in the NBA. Still, this was a fun game to help confirm that.

Up next: The Rockets return to Houston at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday to play the Denver Nuggets.

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