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Houston Rockets Win Game 5 and Clinch Series On Evening of Firsts

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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It took until Game 5, but the Houston Rockets showcased the one aspect of their identity that was the key to their winning season while they dealt with numerous injuries.  At last, the Rockets’ defense finally made an appearance in the inter-state first round match-up and ultimately it was the reason they clinched the series.

Following back to back games in Dallas where the Mavericks scored over 120 points the Rockets solved the Mavericks defensively holding them to 38% from the field and under 20% from behind the three-point line.

94. 79. 103. 169.

Top Performers:

Dallas:

Dirk Nowitzki: 22 Points, 14 Rebounds, 1 Steal

Monta Ellis: 25 Points, 4 Rebounds, 7 Assists, 4 Steals, 1 Block

Al-Farouq Aminu: 14 Points, 9 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 5 Steals

Houston:

James Harden: 28 Points, 2 Rebounds, 8 Assists, 1 Steal, 1 Block

Dwight Howard: 18 Points, 19 Rebounds, 4 Steals, 4 Blocks

Josh Smith: 20 Points, 8 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 1 Steal

Apr 28, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) talks with teammates during the second quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in game five of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Evening of Firsts:

For the first time since joining the Rockets both James Harden and Dwight Howard will take their Rockets into the second round. Who they’ll play has yet to be decided as the San Antonio Spurs took a 3-2 Series lead tonight. Obviously Clutch City fans will be hoping for a Clippers victory in San Antonio Thursday so the series gets extended to seven games. Regardless, the win gives Houston some time for a well deserved rest and allows the coaching staff to begin their preparations for the next round looking at each of their possible opponents.

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This also marks the first time since 2009 that Houston have moved on to the second round and just the second time since 1997. And, the win also marks head coach Kevin McHale’s first playoff series win.

As we highlighted in our pregame analysis there were key areas the Rockets needed to return to their fundamentals such as controlling the pace, winning the rebound battle, defending the three point line and overall defense.

Put a check mark beside each of those categories as Houston held Dallas to 38% from the field (though they did allow ten additional shots by the Mav’s), out rebounded Dallas 53-47 and perhaps most importantly kept them well off their three-point season average by limiting them to 19.2%.

Certainly Dallas was dealt an early blow with the loss of Chandler Parsons and a myriad of other injuries throughout the series. Conversely Houston had key members (Dwight Howard/Terrence Jones) return from lengthy injury absences at the perfect time. Moving forward the fact they’ll need to slow either Chris Paul or Tony Parker will be a serious issue to contend with especially without Patrick Beverley.

Of note, a start date for the next series won’t be decided until a winner of the Spurs and Clippers series is determined. They play Game 6 Thursday, April 30th in San Antonio and if the Clippers can win their final game would occur Saturday, May 2nd. A game 7 would be ideal for a number of reasons as it provides additional rest for the Rockets and longer preparation time.

More notable is the longer the semi finals can be pushed off the better chance the Rockets have to hold out hope Beverley might be able to play in this post season. Beverley’s cast is scheduled to be removed around May 20th or 21st. So, while it’s unlikely he would return for the semi-finals, if the Rockets can make it to the Western Conference Finals we could see him return at that time.

Apr 28, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones (6) reacts after scoring a basket during the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in game five of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. The Rockets defeated the Mavericks 103-94 to win the series 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Good:

  • James Harden had his most impressive defensive game of the series. He made some big plays at key moments including a block late in the game.
  • Josh Smith was easily the x-factor of the series as the Mavericks were unable to find a solution to stopping the enigmatic power forward either from scoring or setting up lob dunks for Howard.
  • Dwight Howard continues to look stronger and more in line with the player who once was considered the best defensive center in the league. Unlike Game 4, Howard maintained his focus and energy throughout the game and his 19 rebounds were a big reason why the Rockets won the rebounding battle.
  • Game 5 finally saw a return to the defensive team we expected to see all series. While the Rockets kept the Mavericks’ field goal percent low it was their ability to run shooters off the perimeter and holding Dallas below 20% from behind the arc which were critical to the win. Also of note, winning the rebound war allowed Houston to stop fast break opportunities and the second chance points that killed them Game 4.

The Houston Rockets have advanced past the First Round of the Playoffs for the 1st time since 2009! #LetsGoRockets pic.twitter.com/jxM6760DWq

— Rockets Nation (@Rockets__Nation) April 29, 2015

  • Every Rocket player brought something to the court who got minutes. For example Pablo Prigioni made key plays within the framework of the defense collecting a key steal late in the fourth quarter.
  • Coach Kevin McHale collected his first playoff series win with the clinching game tonight and showcased a good read on his team. While McHale has had to split time between Terrence Jones and Josh Smith at the power forward position, he went with Jones late in the fourth over Smith who has played the majority of the fourth quarters in the series. That decision proved insightful as Jones scored 5 points in the closing minutes of the game.
  • Entering the series Dallas held a distinct advantage in terms of bench production, but it was Houston: namely Corey Brewer and Josh Smith who won the battle over the Mavericks. In the clinching game the Mavericks reserves scored jut 16 points a mark Josh Smith eclipsed all his own with 20 points.
  • Houston also managed to continue their dominance in the paint outscoring Dallas 52-36.

Apr 28, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) controls the ball during the first quarter as Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza (1) defends in game five of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Bad:

  • Just as the Rockets saw a return to their defensive identity, several other elements of their regular season reared their ugly head tonight. Two specific bad habits returned that had (for the most part) been missing throughout the series. First the Rockets who had seemingly improved their ball protection had 15 first half turnovers, finishing the game with 21 total turnovers. And while Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Clint Capela had shot free throws at much better rate then their season average through the first 4 games, tonight the entire Rockets’ roster seemed off from the line hitting just 3 of their first 12 attempts and only 19 of 36 for the game (or 52.8%).
  • While Trevor Ariza has been arguably the most consistent Rockets’ player on both ends of the court, his shot abandoned him in this series. Let’s hope some well deserved rest for the small forward will allow him ample opportunity to rediscover his three point shot prior to the next series starting.
  • There are concerns regardless of their opponent in the next series specifically at the point guard position. The Mavericks offered an easier match-up given the Rondo situation and injuries to Felton and Harris. The next series won’t extend the same situation as Houston will have to contend with the best point guard at setting pace in the NBA in Tony Parker or the best pick and roll manager in Chris Paul.

The Game:

While the Rockets held a 9 point lead after the first quarter and remained ahead by 6 points at the half, the Rockets didn’t find their offensive footing and flow until the second half.

It felt like Houston was on the verge of taking over the game on several occasions taking leads of 13 and 14 point leads in the first and second halves respectively, but with just over 5 minutes remaining Dallas had cut the lead to 2 (86-88) on a JJ Barea pull-up. This was also the pivotal point in the game as Monta Ellis injured his knee on the same play and Harden raced down court getting the ball to Jones who put them up by 4.

The very next defensive set featured Harden defending and blocking Aminu’s shot and the subsequent play was another Jones dagger who hit from the outside to put Houston up by 9.  The Mavericks never recovered from those 3 consecutive plays as Houston clamped down defensively to finish them off.

They say the hardest game in a series to win is the last and given how the Rockets lost last season in Portland there were probably a few ghosts to be excised on this night.

Apr 28, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after a play during the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in game five of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. The Rockets defeated the Mavericks 103-94 to win the series 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Next Up:

For now the Rockets can breathe a huge sigh of relief as they await their eventual Western Conference semi-final opponents and take some well deserved rest before jumping back in to prepare for the next series.

In the interim Clutch City and the Rockets players will all likely be pulling for a Clippers win this coming Thursday just so they get additional rest and hope their opponents continue to wear each other down.

To that end, either opponent poses issues for the Rockets: the reigning Champions San Antonio Spurs have the experience and overall exquisiteness to their game based on fundamentals, passing and depth while the Clippers have a strong starting athletic core featuring 3 solid stars. And while there may be a preference Rockets head coach Kevin McHale wasn’t tipping his hat in either direction simply stating he was looking forward to having a beer and catching a game in a relaxed setting.

The pundits may all have cited Houston as the upper seed most likely to falter, but the Rockets proved yet again, they are not a team to be under estimated. Certainly the path to move past the next round won’t be easy, but then again nothing this season has been.

Congratulations Clutch City … let’s cheer on your home town Rockets as they accomplished a milestone they earmarked the minute last season ended in Portland. Now they’ll take aim at the next objective on their board knowing it won’t come without great adversity.

The great news for Rockets’ fans is that may be the one area they have a leg up on all the remaining competition: excelling in the face of adversity!

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