On Tuesday night, the Houston Rockets delivered one of their best performances of the season, topping the Miami Heat 106-103.
Houston’s starting five was absolutely fantastic, with Dwight Howard leading the the Rockets in scoring with 22 points (to go with his 16 rebounds). James Harden was equally as impressive, scoring 21 points and dishing out 11 dimes.
Offensively, Houston oftentimes struggles to get solid contributions from anyone other than Howard, Harden and Chandler Parsons, but that wasn’t the case Tuesday night. Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones stepped up in a big way against the defending champs, both pouring in 19 points. Beverley came out of the gates firing, hitting his first three 3-point attempts, as the Rockets started the game 10-for-11 from the field.
Jones did his best work in the fourth quarter, scoring three trips down the floor in a row midway through the fourth (just as Miami cut Houston’s 15-point lead to one).
Harden was instrumental to Houston’s success, but he almost choked the game away late. With a three-point lead and less than 20 seconds left on the game clock, Harden picked up his dribble in the backcourt, anticipating a foul that never came. In a desperate attempt to get the ball past half court, Harden launched the ball downcourt in Howard’s general direction.
The ball sailed out of bounds, giving Miami a chance to tie the game up with 13 seconds left. Fortunately for the Rockets, LeBron James missed a game-tying 3 in the closing seconds, ensuring Houston the victory.
I’ve covered the Rockets all year long, and their entire season has been building up to the treacherous stretch that they began Tuesday night against Miami.
After Houston heads to Orlando to take on the Magic Wednesday night (an obvious trap game for a young team), they hit a five-game stretch that will help define their status as contenders or pretenders:
March 7: Indiana Pacers (home)
March 9: Portland Trail Blazers (home)
March 11: Oklahoma City Thunder (road)
March 13: Chicago Bulls (road)
March 16: Miami Heat (road)
Although every game of the stretch is important, the matchups with the Blazers and Thunder hold a little more weight. If Houston beats Portland, they’ll own the postseason tiebreaker, having taken the season series 3-1. The way it’s looking right now, Houston, Portland and the Clippers are likely to finish within a game or two of each other, so owning the tiebreaker is crucial for playoff seeding (especially since it could decide between the three seed and the five seed if the Clippers fall behind them because the Clippers lead their division, which guarantees them a top-four seed).
Barring serious injury, Houston has very little chance to catch the Thunder, but the game will be more about sending a message. As it stands right now, Oklahoma City is the best in the West, and although you can never count the San Antonio Spurs out, Houston might be their biggest roadblock in the West.
Harden has had trouble against his former team, with the Rockets dropping both matchups with Oklahoma City this season. To a man, Houston has as much talent on their roster as Oklahoma City, but it comes down to star power and progression. If Harden and Howard can go tit-for-tat with Durant and Westbrook—or even come close to doing that—Houston’s superior supporting cast could be the difference in a seven-game series.
Here are both team’s rotations, aside from their stars:
You can’t tell me with a straight face that Jeremy Lamb has anywhere near the impact that Terrence Jones does on the game; Parsons is the glue-guy offensively and an elite wing defender (if you don’t believe that watch the Miami game over), which makes him as valuable if not more valuable than Ibaka, who serves as a rim protector defensively but strictly a jump shooter offensively; Jackson is slightly better than Lin, but like Lin, Jackson struggles with consistency when it comes to both shooting and attacking off the dribble.
Houston’s supporting cast fills in all the blanks that their stars leave, while Oklahoma City’s supporting cast has weakened over the last couple years (their youngsters might be improving, but I don’t trust Lamb to score consistently come playoff time and Perkins is getting more useless by the year).
I’ve been steadfast all year with my belief that Houston can contend this season, and I still believe it. They’re improving month by month, learning how to play with each other and learning how to finish games. They’re young from top to bottom, with Beverley and Jones only in their second seasons and Parsons in his third.
Houston’s potential to be a powerhouse is there, and I’ll be very surprised if they don’t reach it. After the tough five-game stretch ahead, we will have a better indication as to how far they could go this year, but looking forward, this team is built for continued improvement.
If Houston turns into contenders this year, it’ll be because Lin and Asik started to become difference makers in the second unit (they’re paid like difference makers), Jones continues to improve offensively (when he’s hitting the boards hard and his shot is falling their starting five is impossible to stop), Harden steers clear of his hold-the-ball-for-20-seconds-and-then-throw-it-to-someone act at the end of games, and Howard is able to consistently take advantage of mismatches in the post (something he continues to get better at).
Whether it happens this year or not, the new-look Rockets are here to stay. Whether they’re able to grab a couple rings like Hakeem’s mid-’90s Rockets or if they’ll just be super contenders like Rasheed Wallace’s old Blazers or Chris Webber’s old Kings is the question.
Either way, you’ll be hearing from Houston for years to come.