Feb 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) celebrates after a 3-point basket against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. The Rockets defeated the Lakers 134-108. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden, Houston Rockets Get Revenge, Look Like Contenders

The Houston Rockets played a great first half against the Eastern Conference’s second-best team, the Indiana Pacers.

Going into the third quarter, the Rockets led by seven points. Paul George had a couple quick buckets to start the second half, cutting the Rockets lead to just three points.

Then, all of a sudden, the boys in red caught fire. Houston outscored Indiana 38-16 in the third, with James Harden scoring 15 of the 38 points.

With some help of their bench, the Rockets were able to rest their starters for the entire fourth quarter, as Jeremy Lin suddenly found his outside jumper again late in the blowout.

On a night when the Portland Trail Blazers erased a 30-point lead, took a seven-point lead, and then gave it back up, the Rockets reclaimed the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference with one of their most impressive wins of the season.

If you want to know how far the Rockets have come this season, use their two matchups with the Pacers as a point of reference. When these teams first met in December the Pacers absolutely torched Houston, winning the game by 33 points (114-81). Harden constantly found himself having trouble beating Paul George in isolation sets, while Terrence Jones was abused by David West in the post.

This time, things were different. Harden defended George for a majority of the game, with Chandler Parsons drawing the tough assignment of Lance Stephenson. Both Harden and Parsons played with passion on the defensive end, with Harden holding George to just 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting and Parsons holding Stephenson to four points on just 2-of-8 shooting. Stephenson was the invisible man on Friday night against the Rockets, and Parsons should be thanked for that. How often does Stephenson see a 6’9″ top-notch wing defender d-ing him up? Hardly ever (kind of looks like the acquisition of Evan Turner is hurting his confidence).

Dwight Howard only scored 15 points in 28 minutes, but he also added seven rebounds and four assists. D12 pushed Roy Hibbert around under the basket, holding Hibbert to just nine points and three boards (in 29 minutes). Howard is evolving in the post by the day and although he seems to be one of the league’s most hated players, he keeps out-dueling his so-called counterparts.

Meanwhile, Terrence Jones showed significant improvement against West. These are the kinds of things that don’t show up in the stat sheet: The first time Jones faced West, West was able to get low-post position whenever he wanted, while Jones looked meek with the ball in his hands. This time, Jones competed with West, and although West was able to outscore and out-rebound the youngster, the discrepancy between them seemed nowhere near as dramatic as it did in December.

The scariest thing about the Rockets’ success of late is the fact that their roster is littered with players who are still in the early stages of their respective careers. Most of the guys on this team don’t know exactly what kind of player they are yet, but they’re all making positive changes to their game’s. Patrick Beverley is starting to figure out a few more ways to score (namely the semi-hook he puts up when he penetrates from the corner and the floater he shoots when attacking from the circle area), Jones is starting to feel more comfortable with his mid-to-long range jumper and is becoming more aware of his defensive positioning, and D-Mo is starting to prove that he belongs in this league (I think he set the record for most charges taken unsuccessfully in the month of November, but Elias hasn’t confirmed it).

The supporting cast is coming around for Houston, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that their maturation is coinciding with the improvement of both Harden and Howard. Check out how Houston’s two superstars have done since January 28 (not including the Indiana game):

Harden: 27 points, 6.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 49% FG, 38% 3pt, 87% FT

Howard: 22 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 63% FG and FT

Howard has certainly improved in the post, but he’s nowhere near the scoring machine that Harden is. Both serve important functions, and it’s probably easy to argue that Howard affects the game in more ways, but Harden’s maturation in Kevin McHale’s offense (or lack thereof) has been a beautiful thing to see. Early in the season, Harden was having serious trouble with his deep ball (shooting just 30% from distance through December 29), and his offensive game suffered. Now, he’s moving quicker with the ball, finding better looks, and hitting the roller (usually Howard) as often as he’s looking to attack the basket.

Harden and Howard could be the league’s premier inside-out combination, although I’m sure a few guys in Portland and Los Angeles might argue that. Bottom line: Houston is a contender in the Western Conference, and even if they don’t perform all that well in the playoffs (lose the 4-5 matchup or drop a seemingly winnable second-round series), make no mistake about it, the Rockets are going to be a difference maker out West. This team is youth-infused and talented from top to bottom; They’re not the type of team you want to run into in April.

Tags: Dwight Howard Houston Rockets James Harden

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