It was a laugher in Houston tonight, as James Harden and Terrence Jones both had huge games that are encouraging signs for the rest of the season. Boston showed their lottery credentials, and the outcome was assured about midway through the first quarter. After that, the game turned sloppy as neither team seemed to be working all that hard.
James Harden distributed the ball excellently in the first quarter, taking charge of the offense with Pat Beverley sidelined after injuring his hamstring on Wednesday. Isaiah Canaan took Beverley's place in the starting lineup, but mainly played off the ball, spotting up for threes. James' drive-and-kick game has been strong in all three games of the early season. When the Celtics came within sniffing distance in the third, Harden finished the third quarter with a dominant sequence. After finding Kostas Papanikolaou for a fast-break three, the beard pickpocketed Marcus Smart (welcome to the league, rook) and finished with a dunk on the other end. Soon after, he capped off the quarter with a three. With the game in hand, he sat out the fourth, finishing with 26 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals.
We knew Harden is a skilled passer, but he's been a more willing distributor so far, and his focus on defense tonight was impressive, considering how lopsided the game was throughout. He showed signs of becoming a more complete player, which would be something. Though he was only 5-of-14 from the field, James was perfect from the foul line in 14 attempts.
When Harden passes, the ball can really move for the Rockets. Every starter on this team seems to be an above-average passer, and with Ariza and Beverley both penetrating and hitting shots when needed, the Rockets' first five might be the best in the league. Even with Beverley hurt, there were moments in the first quarter (before Houston went on autopilot) when the offense was beautiful music. After this team has built up a reputation as one of the least watchable teams in the league, it comes as quite a surprise.
Terrence Jones was arguably more impressive, finishing with 25 points, 10 boards and two blocks. He was active and assertive on both ends of the floor, went 2-of-4 from long range, and looks poised for a serious breakout season. The effort and confidence are both there, like the skills have always been. Boston is one of the better matchups for Jones, since they're undersized in the front-court, so we'll see how he fares defending the elite big men he'll face next week.
Boston's smallish front line came in handy for the Rockets in more ways than one, since they saw backup big man Tarik Black leave early with a thigh bruise. It didn't look like a major injury, but it's one that bears watching since D-Mo hasn't been anything more than a warm body so far this year.
Isaiah Canaan started in place of Pat Beverley tonight, and he largely tried to stay out of the way when he shared the floor with the starters. He did not look all that comfortable, but when Harden is running the offense like he did tonight, all Canaan needs to do is keep the ball moving or hit open threes - because there were a lot of open threes to be had tonight. Canaan was 3-of-9 from long range, and I'm not sure any of them were contested.
Kostas Papanikolaou has been the first guy off the bench for the Rockets so far this season, and though he had a ghastly six turnovers in 23 minutes, he looked like he could be an excellent offensive contributor for this team. None of the turnovers were that dumb-looking, either - most of them were timing issues where Big Papa moved the ball a sliver too early or too late. Though he only hit one shot from the field, he kept things pretty lively when he was out there. I know I'm not alone in saying that I'm developing a huge soft spot for him.
Dwight Howard had a performance fitting of his placement in this article, failing to reach a double-double for the first time this season (14 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks). At no point did he need to take over the game, so he never did. He played 33 minutes, but it felt like less, and probably would have been if not for Black's injury.
The Rockets are 3-0 to start the season as they continue to feast on a soft beginning to their schedule. They should have one more easy one on Monday in Philadelphia, but after that things get tougher, with games against the Heat, Warriors and Spurs the rest of the week. After that, we should have some sense of just how good this team can be. For now, they've won the games they were supposed to, and done so easily.