The Houston Rockets, now the fifth seed in the West after their wild 153-149 OT victory over the Dallas Mavericks, showed they are postseason-ready.
The Houston Rockets’ 153-149 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks was an ode to scoring. Both teams’ offenses flowed through their superstar point men, James Harden and Luka Doncic, with the Beard proving that experience does matter down the stretch.
Houston was able to erase a 10-point halftime deficit to force overtime. While defense seemed to hardly matter in a game where points flowed like wine at the banquet of an emperor, the game eventually came down to whose defense was able to provide a modicum of resistance.
The first quarter was a showcase of what the league’s two best offenses can do when they’re operating at peak capacity. The quarter saw a virtuoso performance from James Harden, who scored 23 points in the quarter while not missing a single shot.
Harden’s dominance in the first quarter forced the Mavericks to make the crucial adjustment on defense of double-teaming Harden as soon as he crossed half-court– an adjustment that almost won them the game.
As fantastic as Harden was in the opening twelve minutes, the Mavericks, as an entire team, were more than up to the task of matching his scoring prowess. Luka Doncic hadn’t yet found an offensive rhythm but his teammates sure appreciated all the attention he cultivated. His drives opened up a cache of open threes as they matched Houston’s 42 points.
The Mavericks utilized the massive size advantage Kristaps Porzingis held over Houston’s micro ball centers and continuously fed him the ball to great effect as he finished the game with 39 points.
The second quarter saw the game swing in favor of the Mavericks as Trey Burke turned in a performance of a lifetime, and the defensive strategy of double-teaming Harden led him to take his first shot of the quarter with less than a minute remaining. Houston’s gamble of forcing four Rockets not named Harden to beat three Mavericks on defense each possession paid off handsomely, as they won the quarter 43-33.
The Rockets utilized a similar defensive philosophy of trying to force the ball out of Doncic but due to hot nights from the aforementioned Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr, it appeared to be a losing defensive strategy. The Rockets went into halftime with 75 points and a 10 point deficit– those 85 points surrendered were the most given in a half in Rockets franchise history.
The Mavericks’ offense cooled down in the second half. After posting 40-plus points in the opening two quarters, they were held to only 33 points, still enough to stretch their lead from 10 to 11 points.
The third quarter did little to inspire confidence in a Rockets’ comeback, as each great offensive possession was met with a lapse on the defensive end where the Mavericks were consistently able to generate uncontested 3-pointers. On the surface, it looked like Houston was in trouble, but defensively the Rockets showed signs that they were finally putting it together.
Robert Covington, who had a horrid night offensively, began to flash his defensive abilities as a rim protector, collecting a few highlight blocks. With the fourth quarter in sight, the Rockets had finally shown signs of life on defense but now had to deal with the daunting reality of erasing an 11-point lead while the majority of their eight-man rotation was in deep foul trouble.
After posting 119 points in just three quarters, the Mavericks threw up a clunker (by their standards) in the fourth with only 20 points. The Mavericks had shot over 50 percent from 3-point range heading into the final frame, but that hot shooting cooled off tremendously.
The Houston Rockets finally pick up their defense
The Rockets, in tune with the moment, ramped up their defense and played a fantastic quarter on that end all while continuing to generate open shots. The final quarter saw the Mavericks choke away a lead as Houston’s veteran guile got them within striking distance over the final few minutes. The play of the night was the game’s last bucket of regulation.
Houston, down 139-136, inbounded the ball to Harden, who was instantly fouled but not before controversy ensued. Harden began shooting as soon as he caught the ball, and there was debate over whether or not he should be awarded three foul shots for a shooting foul or two.
The referees decided he was not yet in the act of shooting and awarded him two free throws. Harden hit the first to cut the lead to two. His next free throw looked pure but hit the front of the rim and cascaded around the rim for a split second. In that moment, Covington made the play of the game.
Covington sprung towards the baseline from his position along the paint like a linebacker in a blitz package to get underneath the hoop. He elevated, uninhibited by the Mavericks’ defense, and tipped the ball in to tie the game at 139 apiece with 3.3 seconds left. The Mavericks were only able to muster a deep contested three for Luka Doncic as the buzzer beckoned for overtime. The Rockets had fought back but there was still work to be done.
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The first minute and a half of overtime was full of sloppy offense, but Russell Westbrook was dialed in on defense as he found a way to get his hands on three Mavericks passes.
The Rockets’ defensive aggression was even more impressive when considering Harden and Westbrook both were playing on five fouls and fumes after almost 40 minutes of game action each for the pair.
Harden took charge of the offense and regained the lead for the Rockets on back-to-back possessions as he drove for two easy buckets and an additional free throw.
Harden did have one hiccup in overtime when he committed his first and only turnover of the game, but it ended up not costing the Rockets in the end.
P.J. Tucker iced the game when he slid over to take a charge on Luka Doncic and drew the young Slovenian’s sixth foul of the game. The Rockets would prevail 153-149 in one of the NBA’s best games of the season.
Harden was the MVP of the game with 49 points on 14-of-20 shooting and eight assists to one turnover. His defense, much-maligned in the past, was exceptional as he added three steals and three blocks.
Russell Westbrook led the Rockets in plus/minus at +12 but his scoring efficiency was not on par with his output prior to the shutdown, as it took him 30 shots to muster 31 points.
The Rockets will need to find the defensive intensity they had in the fourth quarter earlier in-game if they are going to compete with the likes of the Lakers and Clippers, but they put everyone on notice that they have the will of a champion.