The Houston Rockets beat the Golden State Warriors Saturday night, 116-108, in a game that saw Houston improve to 17-0 this season with Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela in the lineup and end Golden State’s 14-game road winning streak.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday night’s showdown in Houston:
1. Houston’s experiment is working
As the fourth quarter got underway, Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni was asked on television what the difference would be in the fourth quarter.
“Hopefully our two future Hall of Famers,” he said with a smile.
It turned out D’Antoni was right.
Paul had 33 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, Harden had 22 points and eight assists and both controlled the game throughout. Each played 35 minutes, and provided Houston with precisely what they were expected to when Paul was acquired via trade in June: 48 minutes of Hall of Fame point guard play in every game. Even with Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green suspended as a result of the fracas in Los Angeles on Monday night, the Rockets still had more than enough to control this game from start to finish because Paul and Harden were magnificent.
2. Harden’s MVP moment
If James Harden finally wins the NBA’s MVP award this season after finishing as runner-up to Stephen Curry in 2015 and Russell Westbrook last season, the moment everyone will remember came with 1:10 remaining in the fourth quarter. That was when Harden, with the shot clock expiring, buried a three-pointer from the wing – over Curry, no less – to give Houston a six-point lead and essentially ice the game.
It seemed like Harden’s chances of winning MVP – he was the front-runner through the first two months of the regular season – took a potentially fatal blow when he suffered a hamstring injury a few weeks ago. But while Harden was able to come back in about two weeks – matching the most optimistic scenarios for his return – his chief rival for the award this season, LeBron James, has watched his Cleveland Cavaliers fall into the gutter, losing 10 of their last 14 games (including Saturday’s loss to the Oklahoma City in which Cleveland surrendered 148 points).
Now Harden once again looks like the MVP front-runner, and if Houston can stay where it is in the standings for the remainder of the season, it will be this moment – burying that shot over Curry to beat the Warriors, and to clinch Houston’s 2-1 edge in the season series – that will become the defining memory of his 2017-18 season.
3. Houston has the right mix to threaten Golden State
From the moment Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey finalized his roster this summer, Houston clearly had a formidable team, and one that could give everyone in the West fits. But what we’ve seen through this first half of the season is that the Rockets are uniquely suited to give Golden State trouble.
The combination of Paul and Harden are so adept at drawing fouls – and hitting free throws – that they can get Golden State into the penalty early and often, and take advantage when they do. To that point: Houston went 20-for-29 from the foul line Saturday; Golden State 11-for-15. The Rockets also boast a parade of three-point shooters, allowing them to put at least four on the court at any one time, which helped them go 14-for-37 from three Saturday. But, most importantly, the Rockets the length and defensive versatility to credibly challenge the Warriors’ trump card these past few years – playing Draymond Green at center in small lineups – in ways that only James and the Cavaliers have previously been able to.
Houston closed this game with Paul, Harden, Capela, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker. That lineup – or an even smaller, even more switchable lineup with Ariza replacing Capela – gives Houston the opportunity to be explosive offensively and long enough defensively to not be overwhelmed by Golden State’s small-ball attack, which no other team in the league can say. It is noteworthy that in a game in which Golden State went small late, Houston matched them, went toe-to-toe and came out on top.
4. Golden State’s ceiling remains immense
All that being said, Golden State didn’t play particularly well and still had every chance to win it with four minutes to go. Golden State had 19 turnovers that resulted in 23 Houston points, including a combined 15 by Curry (six), Green (five) and Kevin Durant (four). The Warriors committed too many fouls, allowing Houston to get into the penalty and exacerbate its free throw advantage. They gave up 12 offensive rebounds, while only collecting four themselves.
Most teams with those kinds of issues against a team as good as Houston on the road would get handled easily. Instead, Golden State appeared it was going to find a way up until the moment Harden buried that shot over Curry.
That is only further proof that Golden State, at its best, still laps the rest of the field. But what this game also showed is that the Rockets have the ability to make the Warriors uncomfortable – and that, if the Warriors do get uncomfortable, the Rockets are a team that can take advantage.
5. Will Houston’s short bench come back to haunt it?
D’Antoni only played eight players in keeping with his career-long penchant for holding to a short rotation. He would argue that both Ariza and Green could’ve seen some time had they been available (and Ariza obviously would’ve played a lot), but it still doesn’t change the fact that he’s going to ride his horses hard all season long.
Part of the defense of D’Antoni’s strategy is that Houston had go through a lot of machinations just to put this roster together this summer – and, in doing so, left itself with a fairly short bench. That’s something Morey knows as well as anyone, and undoubtedly will be trying to remedy between now and the buyout deadline March 1. Houston will be active before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, but with the lack of assets at their disposal, even someone as creative as Morey will face serious challenges. The buyout market, however, could yield someone looking for rotation minutes for a championship contender.
Why could this matter? Well, anyone who saw the end of Houston’s second round series with San Antonio last year saw Harden fall apart at the end of Game 5 and for all of Game 6. If the Rockets are going to make it to the Western Conference finals and then take down the Warriors, they’re going to need to keep him, Paul and the rest of what is a veteran team upright throughout the playoffs.
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