Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Horry and more players of the back-to-back mid-90’s Houston Rockets championship team celebrated their 20th anniversary with a court-side view to more history in the making.
James Harden put on a show for the living Rockets’ legends and for those who were concerned (including myself) of his recent shooting slump. His 50 point (new career high) barrage certainly silenced the critics and revived the “MVP” chants. It was the first 50-point game by a Rockets’ player since Olajuwon’s 51 -point game back in 96′. Harden also tied a career-high in free throws made with 22. Tonight’s win stretched the Rockets (46-22) win streak to three and closed the gap to one game within the second seed Memphis Grizzlies (47-21).
All went well for the Rockets in a historic night except for an inadvertent elbow from Kenneth Faried that connected with Terrence Jones‘ ribs in the first quarter. Jones tried to fight through the pain but grimaced his way to the bench and did not return. He left the game on a stretcher and a towel over his head. Kevin McHale said Jones would be out “for a little bit” and will remain hospitalized overnight.
Denver Nuggets coach Melvin Hunt may have learned a valuable lesson tonight. Do not sit your best rim protector against arguably the best slasher in the NBA. Jusuf Nurkic did not see the floor until midway in the third quarter.
By then, Harden and company held a 17 point advantage. By halftime, Harden buried the Nuggets for 22 points and attempted more free throws than their entire team. From there, it was no looking back.
For the Nuggets, Wilson Chandler and Randy Foye potted 23 points, Ty Lawson threw 10 dimes and Faried tallied his 20th double-double of the season. Their Achilles heel happened to be preventing lane penetration. The Nuggets are 26th in the league in points allowed per game and the Rockets exposed that weakness. The Nuggets fall to 26-43 (6-4 under Melvin Hunt).
The Grudge Match
It appeared as if the entire Rockets’ team were possessed by the 1994-95 Rockets’ team in regards to their amazing ball movement to begin the game. Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Trevor Ariza shared the ball like they acquired a decade of chemistry with one another. The Nuggets followed suit by attacking the rim with Dwight Howard gazing from the sideline.
Jones reserved the hottest start with 10 points (4-5 FGs) and two rebounds in the first nine minutes of action. He didn’t elude Faried with a dream shake but he did own the paint in the liking of Olajuwon. However, his efforts quickly dissolved during a loose-ball scramble. Jones caught a nasty, unintentional elbow from Faried and did not return to the game. That’s when James Harden channeled his inner Clyde Drexler.
Jameer Nelson managed to splash a couple of threes to open the second quarter to bring the Nuggets within three. The rest of the Denver bench did not provide much help though. Harden checked back in and tallied 10 points and entered halftime with 22 points. The Rockets led the Nuggets 65-49 at the break.
At halftime, NBA commissioner Adam Silver introduced the back-to-back Houston Rockets’ champions in honor of their 20th anniversary.
VIDEO OF HALFTIME COMMEMORATION
To begin the second half, the Rockets came out firing and kept the Nuggets at arms length. Harden scored 16 of the Rockets’ 25 third quarter points but Houston had no answer for Randy Foye either. Foye scored 13 points of his own but Denver still found themselves down 90-73 at the end of the period as both teams caught fire. Nurkic finally saw the floor with about six minutes remaining in the third but Harden was already unconscious and not to be stopped.
The Nuggets opened up the final period with a 13-2 run to shrink the lead to eight. Harden was a mere spectator during that stretch, but had to cut his rest short to ensure Denver did not come closer. The rest of the team’s confidence made its way to the court too as Patrick Beverley and Ariza helped extend the lead back to double digits with a score from each. The team’s defense ceased to allow three-point buckets and Mr. MVP took it from there. He scored another 15 points in the fourth including a dagger from beyond the arc under the duress of three defenders.
Back Like He Never Left
Harden’s seventh 40-point game this season undoubtedly countervails last week’s rather poor performance.
Harden credited his teammates for the unbelievable night and I agree that they deserve it. Not just for helping in the victory but in an indirect way.
Harden’s early bench departure in the fourth allowed him to explode once more before the end of regulation.
That wouldn’t be possible had it not been for the lackluster play of the Rockets’ reserves.
Maybe some of the previous champions should join Drexler at the Toyota Center on a more frequent basis. (Drexler is the color analyst of Rocket home games.)
The champions presence seemed inspiring enough for Harden to match Drexler’s career-high in points which is also 50. Without their second or fourth leading scorer, expect Harden to become the front runner in the MVP race.
What To Take Away
- Jones’ injury may affect the availability of Dwight Howard. Houston is only two and a half games ahead of fifth seed Los Angeles Clippers. Blake Griffin recently made his return so it’s possible that the Clippers will make a late-season push for homecourt advantage in the first round. The Nuggets scored 46 points in the paint tonight. The inside will remain exposed if neither Jones or Howard returns soon which in turn will potentially hurt the Rockets’ seeding.
- Despite scoring 118 points, the Rockets still managed to turn the ball over 16 times (their season average). They must learn and understand to relish all possessions because in the postseason, the game slows down and each opportunity is crucial.
- Everyone on the Rockets whose last name isn’t Harden must provide a spark while Harden rests. They nearly fumbled the lead before Harden made it back on the court. Their bench is close to last in the league so maybe a quick experiment using K.J. McDaniels will serve some good.
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