Contrary to most Rockets fans, part of me got excited when the late-breaking Howard scratch was announced. We have been asking to be tested since opening day throughout our cupcake schedule to start the season. Not only did we get a test against one of the western conference contenders, but our reserves were forced into the spotlight. It requires a very new bench rotation into important situations where they are faced with making NBA-level decisions against playoff talent in long, meaningful stretches of games.
In those terms, tonight was a success given the career nights from Canaan (21 points on 7/12 shooting, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal) and Motiejunas (16 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal). Papanikolaou also demonstrated his versatility with a flexible line despite poor shooting (2 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, and 3 steals)
Harden did not have the huge performance needed to overcome a team of Golden State's caliber. James' 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists look nice superficially but they belie his 8 for 24 shooting performance (33%) and absolutely ghastly 1 for 11 (9%). Combined with Ariza's horrid shooting on the evening, James and Trevor shot 11 for 40 (27.5%). The entire Rockets team was 10 for 42 from three point range. The 22 turnovers certainly didn't help things either.
All in all, it was a poor shooting night to say the least and we deserved to lose this one, but I was thoroughly impressed by the way our reserves stepped up for the most part.
Now, onto the details.
The first quarter could be summarized as valiant offensively and a let-down defensively. Despite not scoring until over 3 minutes into the quarter, our role players were buoying James Harden's then efficient offense. The defense, however, was being cut through like a hot knife through butter. Golden State wasn't hitting all of their shots, but the ones they hit were easy. Draymond Green and Steph Curry were 7 of 9 in the first quarter, Bogut was doing a great job facilitating offensive cuts with his passing, and Houston was slower on their defensive rotations than in past games this season. Golden State shot 70% over halfway through the first quarter and 52% by the end of the first.
Kostas was sensational sans his poor shooting. He was very active on both sides of the court, grabbing rebounds and facilitating movement on offense but he was missing all of his wide open shots from the perimeter. At least Kostas had the discipline to start passing up shots and focusing on his defense and rebounding.
Cannan looked quite good from the outset, he led the Rocket in scoring for the majority of the first half on 4 of 5 shooting before James Harden really started cooking in the latter part of the second quarter.
The disappointing aspects of the first half were the persistence of unnecessary turnovers (10) and the compete absence of Trevor Ariza on the offensive end of the floor (1 for 9, 3 points).
In the grand scheme of things, I was impressed with how every player on the bench seemed to step up and contribute in the first half in the absence of Dwight. Canaan and Motiejunas combined for half of Houston's 56 points, 12 of which came from 3-point range. Defensively, Houston started to clean things up a little bit after letting the Warriors get out of the gate quickly, holding last years highest scoring backcourt to 14 points on 12 shots. Papanikolaou played the Swiss army knife role like a pro (2 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 3 steals).
In the words of J.B. Bickerstaff during the halftime interview as the teams headed to the locker room: "This group is coming together right before our eyes."
The second half began with Golden State pretty logically feeding the ball to Klay Thompson to get him involved in the game. The Warriors chipped into the Rocket lead and took over after a very poor inbounding sequence following a Klay Thompson layup that gave Golden State a quick 5-0 burst. Iguodala followed that up by dunking on Kostas' head for the second time in the 3rd quarter. Iguodala is such an incredible asset to have coming off the bench as well; he was stuffing the stat sheet in a number of other effective ways for the Warriors.
Houston's offense then went very cold, scoring just 4 points in 8 and a half minutes before Jason Terry finally drilled a corner three. The Rockets proceeded to hang on for dear life to ride out the storm as the Warriors offense continued to hum along. Golden State beat the Rockets in the third quarter 28-13 and retained a 7 point lead heading into the final period.
The fourth quarter began the process of slowly chipping away at the lead. Canaan chipped in with a pair of free throws, Donatas continued to have the best game of his Houston Rocket career, and Jason Terry really helped turn the tide by forcing two quick turnovers that translated into a few points. This helped push the Rockets back to within 1 point of Golden State after the first 3 minutes of the 4th quarter. Canaan promptly tied the game shortly thereafter with another "Canaan ball" from deep.
The Warriors offense started to sputter a little bit after a series of uncharacteristic turnovers and the Rockets offense shifted gears towards getting the ball into Harden's hands earlier in the shot clock.
As the game drifted into 'clutch' minutes, the intensity in the building started to palpably build and both teams were hustling and diving for the ball like this was a playoff game. This was the test we have all been waiting for. At this point, Houston was down by 6 points and needed to pull through with an impressive finish.
Houston's crunch time performance was a downer. Golden State was giving us every opportunity to make a push. The Rockets just could not buy a jumpshot and Golden State knew we weren't going to stop taking them without Dwight down low. The Golden State lead extended to 7 at the two minute warning before a botched defensive rebound led to an extra possession for the Warriors that appeared to tip the scale towards a loss.
Predictably, a Curry three pointer sealed the coffin for the prospects of Houston's 82-0 season
Tonight was a big night. Regardless of whether or not we won or lost the game, the bench effort by Houston was encouraging. Both Canaan and Motiejunas had the best games of their young NBA careers on a night when Beverley, Jones, and Howard were out of the lineup. Kostas Papanikolaou demonstrated hustle and veteran savvy despite his awful shooting.
Though I was very troubled with Ariza's poor scoring performance, I was happy to see him funnel that frustration into grabbing a team leading 11 rebounds. While Kostas and Trevor may have helped make-up for losing Howard's rebounding, they failed to put the ball through the hoop.
An over-performing bench can cure a lot of ills. Injuries are one, but the turnovers and awful shooting performance that the Rocket had would be hard for any team to overcome.
Shake it off, take the lump, take solace in the silver linings, and carry on - everything will be fine.
*EDIT*: Post-game interviews from Ariza, Harden, and Canaan below
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