If you were lucky enough to watch the Rockets OT win over Memphis last night you’ll know it was one of the most exciting games of the season.
Without argument the Southwest Division is the toughest and while Memphis and Houston have battled for top placement it was the Grizzlies who jumped ahead following their November 17th win over the Rockets.
Since that time the Grizzlies have held onto the division lead, so it was great poetic justice the 2-teams entered last night with the knowledge the winner would usurp the other atop the division.
Memphis arrived having lost on just 3-occasions at home and very determined to correct a 3-game losing streak. Houston arrived with 3-new recruits in tow, having had little time for practice especially for newly signed Josh Smith who had just joined his new team yesterday.
Like a great movie this game offered plenty of plot twists throughout:
- Memphis jumped on Houston and took an early 14-point lead and sent center Dwight Howard to the bench with 2-quick fouls.
- The Rockets’ league worst bench showed they won’t be residing in the basement in the New Year as they countered with their new additions to take back the lead.
- Entering the fourth quarter Houston had cut the margin to 2-points
- Mid-way through the fourth quarter James Harden reentered the game with his bench having built a 5-point lead
- With Harden the Rockets improved the lead to 10-points
- MVP candidate Marc Gasol returned to ignite his Grizzlies as they erased the deficit and buoyed his team to once again pull in front.
- Houston’s own MVP candidate Harden countered to ensure the game would require an extra frame to decide the winner.
Fittingly, we headed to overtime to determine who would sit atop the Southwest Division today and in third place in the Western Conference. While waiting for overtime to begin I mused on how the league must have wished for this type of drama and excitement a day earlier in the rather pedestrian Christmas games we witnessed.
In overtime the game once again provided plot-like twists as both MVP candidates captained their team play but the hero of the night was newly acquired Josh Smith who grabbed 2-consecutive offensive boards and nailed both his free throws to cement a lead the Rockets never relinquished.
Three Keys To the Win:
ONE: Don’t expect the Houston bench to remain in the cellar for long. New addition Corey Brewer has demonstrated in back to back games how much one player can buoy the production of a unit and this was accomplished without McHale even utilizing all the reserves at his disposal. This unit was responsible for getting Houston back in the game coupled with Josh Smith playing with them in his debut, though he’ll move to the starting line-up likely by Sunday or Monday. There is much to anticipate regarding these reserves as they suddenly offer energy, scoring, defense and above all versatility.
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TWO: As I highlighted in the Game Day Countdown a great advantage for Houston existed behind the 3-point line where they routinely average double the amount Memphis does. This rang true as the Rockets scored above their average (11.7) scoring 14-threes and were it not for 2-late threes provided by Vince Carter the disparity would have been even greater as the Grizzlies countered with 7-threes. Trevor Ariza (4) and Corey Brewer (3) accounted for half of the Rockets 3-point output.
THREE: While both teams offer viable MVP candidates in Marc Gasol and James Harden it’s hard not to leave last night’s game without believing Harden has the leg up at this point in the season as the odds on leader of the MVP race. Case in point, while Howard was out 11-games Harden captained the Rockets to a 8-3 record against formidable opponents (including a win versus Memphis).
Harden has habitually taken apart teams scoring a league high 27.6-points per game, but Memphis has been the one team who’ve held him in check limiting him to 18-points per game since he joined the Rockets. Last night it appeared he was determined to change those odds as he drove the paint repeatedly and scored 10-points in the first quarter. By night’s end he had surpassed his average scoring 32-points on 10-17 from the field, made 10 of 11 free throws, had a double-double with 10 assists and was just 2-rebounds shy of a triple-double (8) and had 3-blocks including two critical blocks (see Play of the night).
While Harden was MVP-like the night belonged to Josh Smith who just joined the team yesterday. He played 31:35 in his debut scoring 21-points along with 3-assists (although many of his initial passes led to the pass that produced the assist) and had 8 rebounds (4 offensive rebounds). In overtime he grabbed back to back offensive rebounds which led to two successful free throws.
Overtime offered a glimpse of the new starting-5 and the realization this team could be deadly on both ends of the court. For the Smith doubters the one thing immediately obvious is he excels in his rightful power forward position. When Smith is dialed in becomes a nightmare for the opposition given his ball handling ability, defensive prowess and speed.
Moving forward, as he learns the team concepts he’ll make the front court (and paint) stronger beside Howard, be a worthy wing target with Ariza for transition opportunities and provide perfect floor spacing for the Rockets starters. In addition, last night was the first clue the Rocket’s bench just improved dramatically with Smith joining the team coupled with the addition of Brewer.
For more insight check out my article: Is Smith the Best Man to Lift Rockets which details why this Rocket team is much better suited for his assets
Play of the night:
With under a half minute remaining and the Rockets leading 113-111, Tony Allen received a pass from Courtney Lee deep in the post. Harden blocked his shot forcing Allen to foul him which essentially was the game. Harden also had another block in overtime on a Carter 3-point shot which would have allowed Memphis to pull back within 2-points. The bearded one continues to be improve defensively this season, so the fact his defense likely won the Rockets the game is noteworthy.
I think I’ve noted this in just about every article since Brewer was added to the team, but Trevor Ariza is going to reap huge rewards from both Brewer and Smith’s signings. Ariza is now able to get meaningful in game rest and it’s showing: last night he notched his second double-double of the season. While the presence of Brewer affords McHale the opportunity to rest Ariza it’s the addition of Smith that allows him to be the full 2-way player the Rockets envisioned when they signed him. I’ve noted he looks more fluid on his shot since the new teammates arrived and his defense specifically on the perimeter have been top notch.
After losing back to back games and looking sluggish while the team tried to reintegrate Howard back into the line-up the Rockets with their new additions have beat two of the West’s top-3 teams (Portland/Memphis) in succession to find themselves atop the Southwest Division and in the third seed.
As always we invite you to join the discussion in the comment section.
Check back tomorrow for our Game Day Countdown as we prepare for the reigning Champs and yet another division Southwest Divison rival: the San Antonio Spurs