Houston Rockets Game Summary: James Harden Makes a STATEMENT:
When we learned the game between the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers would be the afternoon game on national television I remember thinking this has all the elements for a great Sunday afternoon showdown:
- Both teams had been on a winning clip
- Both teams were missing one of their key stars due to injury
- Both teams have high octane offenses
- Both teams had been playing with improved defense and were winning games because of it
- Both teams had made early season tweaks to their roster in an effort to align their squads for a deep playoff run and the hopes of an eventual championship
- And most importantly both teams featured All-Star players who are both in the conversation for this season’s Most Valuable Player
What we didn’t know prior to the tip was how entertaining this match-up would be, how feisty the competition would get or the strength of the resounding message James Harden would send forth by day’s end.
Don’t Wake A Sleeping Dog:
It’s not like you have to ask twice for Patrick Beverley to get invested in a game, but the skirmish that took place shortly into the third quarter woke the instigator up. Beverley stepped in to take a charge on LeBron James, but was called for the block. When he tried to get up, James straight armed him back to the floor as presumably he wasn’t ready himself to rise yet. Making matters worse was Timofey Mozgov came over and pushed down on top of James to hold Beverley in place. Technical fouls were assessed to both players however James was the one who went to the line to shoot the foul on the extra penalty doled out to Beverley.
Just after the melee James played instigator when he walked by Beverley and rubbed shoulders with him as if attempting to get Beverley to take another foul or do something which would get him thrown from the game. The “game of chicken” maneuver fell short of expectations as Beverley didn’t flinch, in fact if anything it ratcheted up the defense and energy of Beverley who was extremely active for the remainder of the game.
Whether it was a charge or block in the end wasn’t the point, the entire situation served to set the tone for the remainder of the game. What perhaps Cleveland are unaware of is just how feisty this Rocket group is. They won’t back down from anyone and often it is Beverley who leads the team in this regard.
The game had some interesting fluctuations from what we might have expected entering the day:
- Though Houston ranks third in pace and Cleveland ranks 24th it was the Cavaliers who got up 98 shots over the course of the game to the Rockets 74. That is a big discrepancy.
- Houston take the most 3-point shots in the NBA and while Cleveland generally get up 26.4 attempts per game they completely blew that number out of the water Sunday hoisting up 40 attempts during the game of which they successfully hit 12 or 30%. The Rockets attempted closer to their average (33.8) putting up 30 attempts and connected on 11 for 36.7%.
- Since Dwight Howard has been out with his knee injury the Rockets aren’t grabbing as many rebounds but they were completed dominated by the Cav’s who grabbed 53 rebounds (22 offensive boards) to the Rockets 36 rebounds (8 offensive boards). Tristan Thompson was a beast on the boards grabbing 19 in total and he out boarded the entire Rocket team with 11 offensive boards.
- On a whole the day had it’s share of technical fouls being assessed which has become rather common in games versus the Cavaliers this year (just ask the Clippers) but the strangest one occurred following another aggressive defense on Harden with the bearded one taking a flagrant for his role in attempting to harm the King’s family jewels.
ICYMI: James Harden is called for flagrant foul, but is not ejected, after kicking LeBron James in the groin. http://t.co/khXpqwy2hU
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 1, 2015
While Trevor Ariza‘s offensive numbers won’t jump off the page his constant coverage on LeBron James caused him enough frustration to have one of his poorer shooting afternoons this season. In the end James had a game high 37 points, but it took him 35 attempts to get those points. Ariza had just 4 points, but also added valuable intangibles in the form of 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks.
Several times Ariza was able to cut off the passing lanes either directly to James or from him to his teammates and in a pivotal play near the end of the game although James pushed Ariza off him (without an offensive foul called) Trevor was able to recover and get his hand up just enough to bother James’ shot.
New Starting Five:
With Terrence Jones steady improvement since returning from the nerve inflammation that held him out of over 40 games he was re-inserted into the starting line-up by coach Kevin McHale which paid immediate dividends. Knowing Jones can score inside the paint as well as spread the floor it kept the Cavaliers’ defense on guard and didn’t allow them to leak off anyone for double coverage. Since Jones is already familiar with the existing crew he was able to meld into the starting core seamlessly which is a plus for McHale who can utilize this line-up with the focus on additional offense moving forward.
Perhaps the most notable difference to the game came down to the prowess of Houston’s stellar defense. As mentioned Ariza took the lion share of the James assignment, but reserves Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni did their part to keep the energy high and slash out at the Cleveland perimeter players getting enough of a hand in their vision to throw off their shots.
In fact the back court for Cleveland struggled mightily against the Rockets. The total amount scored by the guards was 21 points:
Is the Room For Love in Cleveland?
Kevin Love was the only other Cavalier to get rolling besides James, posting the quietest 21 points I’ve ever seen. The interesting factor is Love’s points were all completed before the half way point of the third quarter. In fact it was Kevin Love who almost single handedly brought the Cav’s back into the game. With the Cavaliers trailing by 11 points it was Love’s three consecutive 3-pointers that closed the gap and drew them back within reach.
You would think the fact Love had been hitting would merit him getting a good share of touches, but he only touched the ball once more in the third, several minutes later and was yanked at the next possible opportunity. He didn’t get another touch until 4:25 of the fourth quarter! He had 3 shot attempts in rapid succession at this point in the game and didn’t get another touch to finish the fourth quarter or any touches in the over time frame.
Love continues to look like a fish out of water in the Cav’s system and his body language screams of wanting to be anywhere but where he is. I also find it curious that on a day where James’ shot wasn’t falling he chose to feed Smith, Thompson and pretty much everyone but Love from the mid way of the third quarter on. Makes me think the rumors the Cavaliers were shopping him were more than just rumors and it also makes me think Love may not be ready to return if this is the role they envision for him.
Mar 1, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) passes the ball during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The Super Stars:
In the end the day centered around the two All-Stars and MVP candidates LeBron James vs. James Harden with the beard seemingly coming out on top in more than just the score. While James logged the ball for most possessions and forced his game it was Harden who took what the game gave him and distributed the ball to his teammates with complete confidence. This was no more apparent than in the over time frame when Harden kicked the ball out to an open Beverley who nailed the 3-pointer, no doubt feeling a sense of pay back for the skirmish earlier in the day.
James also had significant problems at the line and shooting from distance. He ended up going 3 of 11 from the free throw line missing two pivotal throws which could have iced the game for Cleveland. Not necessarily known as a 3-point shooter the fact he took 12 attempts from behind the arc (hitting 4) was more a result of the wily defense the Rockets brought to the floor.
Strange But True: LeBron James missed more free throws Sunday (8) than DeAndre Jordan (7). pic.twitter.com/KiwY9saUqF
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 2, 2015
For me it pinpointed something I’ve discussed all season with basketball fans and friends. They just don’t understand how Houston can be a good defensive squad and can’t believe they continue to shut down teams. A major factor is their communication and they play as a team almost on a string as they shift their coverage around the floor.
The other major factor and one also still not a commonly understood fact is the improvement on James Harden defensively. Case in point: late in the game Harden was covering James who made a drive to the basket, Harden kept James in front of him without fouling as long as he could and fed him into the awaiting help coverage. When James reached this point and put up the shot there were 3 defenders contesting and Harden positioned himself to successfully snare the rebound.
On the day Harden scored a much more efficient 33 points on 8 of 18 from the field, hit two 3-pointers, had 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks and was an extremely proficient 15 of 18 from the stripe.
When you just proved to a national audience you're the league's most valuable player. https://t.co/Onjs21f7z3
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) March 2, 2015
Though Cleveland attempted to get the ball out of his hands and utilized different strategies defensively like double teams and pressure the beard has seen pretty much every defensive coverage this season and was prepared for the challenge. When teams try to run out at him to take him off the line he streaks by them into the paint where his brute strength either leads to a bucket, shots at the line or both. The other area of his game which is vastly improved is his ability to drive the lane and find wide open corner snipers.
On a whole Harden isn’t your typical scoring leader, he’s tough and can handle the punishment. If the fact he hasn’t missed a game this season doesn’t explain that perhaps watching the play where Tristan Thompson sends him to the ground hard best demonstrates it. Not only does Harden score he seems to almost relish the fact he’s been hit and drawn the foul. Unlike James who post game was telling all the pundits That’s not a basketball play, I’m sure the league will look into it.” So, not only did Harden end up looking like the better man on the court, but off the court as well.
In the end the game went to overtime with the Rockets taking the day’s contest, but anyone watching left the match feeling James Harden left no question as to who this years Most Valuable Player is.
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) March 2, 2015
The Final Numbers:
- Houston are now on a 5 game winning streak
- 5 technical fouls were assessed: James and Thompson for Cleveland and Ariza, Beverley and Brewer for Houston
- Houston are now within a game and half of second place Memphis
- Houston have won all 5 overtime games this season
- James Harden registered his 27 thirty point game this year
- Rockets are 8-0 in games Terrence Jones has started
- Rockets record vs. the East is 18-5
- Rockets have beat Cleveland last 6 outings
- Rockets are 41-18 good to retain their 3rd seed in the West
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