Just 13 days ago on March 19th, James Harden scored a career high 50 points. Harden bested that career best by a point scoring 51. And while this is good for Harden who is reinforcing his MVP candidacy the big news arguably was the return of Terrence Jones to the line-up.
James Harden: *51 Pts, 6 Asts, 8 Rebs, 3 Stls, **8 of 9 from behind the arc
DeMarcus Cousins: 24 Points, 21 Rebounds, 10 Assists, **6 Blocks, 3 Steals, 2nd triple-double of career
*Career high, **tied career high
Jones showed zero rust as he went on a terror blocking shots all over the court. He had 5 blocks in the first quarter alone! In total Jones had 7 blocks tying a career high. His return was key as coach Kevin McHale rested Dwight Howard to save him for the more pivotal game versus Dallas today.
Houston was on fire from behind the arc with Harden tying a career best of 8 of 9 and Trevor Ariza adding a further 6 threes. The game seemed well in hand with the Rockets leading by 19 points part way through the second quarter, but the Rockets let their foot off the gas allowing Sacramento to make it a dog fight. From that point forward the game was a constant see-saw of runs by each team; the Rockets would pull ahead only to have the Kings close the gap and then the Kings would pull ahead only to see Harden and company go on a run themselves.
Apr 1, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones (6) congratulates guard James Harden (13) after defeating the Sacramento Kings at Toyota Center. Rockets won 115 to 111. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
While Jones was a welcome return and those 7 blocks were huge the x factor of this game may well be Pablo Prigioni who seems to have found his niche within the squad. He scored a mere 4 points, yet the intangibles he is providing are factoring into wins. Getting 7 assists is a welcome addition, however he also grabbed 2 rebounds and had 4 steals, and he did all this without turning over the ball. In fact if there was a mar on Harden’s night it would be the 7 turnovers he committed, but with Prigioni protecting the rock it’s helping Houston improve their 29th rank for turnovers.
Jones was solid in his first minutes back after recovering from the partially collapsed lung he sustained. His healthy stat line included 16 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal. Oddly, though he was huge on the glass with those 7 blocks his conditioning was evident in other ways defensively as he registered the worst plus-minus differential on the team with minus -15.
Corey Brewer was the only other Rocket to not register a plus rating and seemed to have an off night after playing so solidly in March. It’s reasonable to assume the extra energy required from Brewer may be taking a toll on him as Terry now starts and Smith has been in and out of the starting line-up. We should keep an eye on how this factors moving forward as it may simply be a matter of the new reserves adjusting without Terry.
After a solid effort in Toronto, Clint Capela wasn’t as effective, however he did score 4 points, snag 3 rebounds and get 3 blocks in his 9:45 of playing time.
DeMarcus Cousins was spectacular recording a triple-double along with 6 blocks and 3 steals. If the Kings could ever surround him with the right talent he truly could lead this team to the post season and cause some damage.
What To Take Away:
- Watching how the Rockets play with and without Dwight Howard in the line-up is a clear indication of how much improved they are with his presence on the floor. They were lucky tonight that Harden and Ariza were hot from the perimeter or this one could have easily registered in the loss column.
- To that end, James Harden scoring two 50-point games in a season along with his league best 33rd thirty point game and 9th 40 point game has definitely upped the pressure on the pundits who’ll be voting for MVP. While Steph Curry is leading a relatively healthy squad with precision Harden is doing what is necessary to win in spite of multiple injuries. This might be the closest MVP race in the past decade.
- At times this season I’ve wondered if the Rockets had what it took especially with the copious injuries and Harden having to carry so much. Now it appears they are literally getting everyone healthy at exactly the right time and subsequently their offense is flowing, their defense is improved with Howard back and the team appears to have a formidable chemistry. Still, I can’t help but think about one Zach Randolph foul which could be the difference on where the Rockets finish. The Spurs are also on fire building to the perfect crescendo as the post season nears, but maybe that in itself could be a factor if they somehow manage to move up to fifth and possibly avoid the Rockets until a much later round.
- The Rockets and Harden have precious little time to enjoy the win as they prepare for an inter-division contest versus the Mavericks tonight. As mentioned that no call on the Randolph foul could play a huge factor come season end, as a tie would be broken based on the teams’ conference record (Memphis has a 2 game edge) and then the division records. Memphis currently sits at 8 wins and 7 losses with their final divisional game against New Orleans next Wednesday. Houston have split their 12 games and still have 4 contests remaining: Dallas tonight, and then 3 divisional matches in a row. They’ll play a home and away series versus the Spurs next Wednesday, Friday and finish against the Pelicans Sunday. Should they manage to do the unthinkable and win all 4 they will control their own fate. If the two teams tie in both the conference and divisional categories then we get into breaking down winning percentage versus playoff teams in their conference.
Bottom line, the Rockets need to power through the 4 divisional teams on tap if they want to be the masters of their own destiny. Don’t miss the game tonight as things heat up for the Rockets and the post season looms.
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