Oh man, was that glorious.
James Harden made his strongest case for MVP yet. Corey Brewer debuted and was basically the platonic ideal of Corey Brewer, Missing Ingredient. He was electric.
The Blazers came in to much fanfare and were brushed aside. They were missing LaMarcus Aldrige, who was sick, and Robin Lopez, who is injured. But they still had Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and bizarro Meyers Leonard, who is now a deadeye three-point shooter. No, this was not as great a win as it could have been (and the crowd was kinda dead in the second half when the game was by no means out of reach.
But the story of this game was Harden. He scored 44 points, and could have scored 50 if the game had been close. He scored 31 points in the first half on 10-17 shooting, and finished it with this ridiculous bit of magic:
He had 5 assists and 5 steals at the break. No one else has done that this season in a whole game. He was playing terrific defense outside of a team-wide cold start (we're not going to talk about that trend tonight). His shooting stroke, which has been off all year, despite his overall brilliance, had returned.
He finished with 44 points, 7 assists, 5 steals, 3 rebounds on 14-26 shooting, 4-9 from deep, and 11/12 from the line (I can't help myself: Kobe scored 25 points on 30 shots last night). He just submitted another performance worthy of an MVP.
In fact, the only thing that has appeared to be able to stop Harden is fatigue. But reinforcements are here.
Corey Brewer scored 15 points on 5-10 shooting (2-4 from deep! Corner threes!) with 5 steals of his own, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. The fast break attack exploded with him on the floor. He, Beverley and Harden were flying around the perimeter on defense, poking away balls all over the floor.
They hounded Lillard -- if we say his name, that means we no longer fear his wrath -- into 6 turnovers, with 14 steals as a team. Lillard shoved Pat Beverley for an offensive foul in the second half. Matthews got a technical and a flagrant foul. These teams do not like each other, but the Rockets kept their cool, largely, and played as a team.
Alexey Shved, the other new Rocket, didn't make an impression in the first half, but acquitted himself nicely in garbage time. Donuts had 10 points and 8 rebounds, happily ceding some of the interior scoring burden back to Howard, who scored 16, grabbed 13 rebounds and didn't bother guarding Meyers Leonard out to the three-point line, preferring instead to patrol the paint to great effect.
Lillard had 18 points on 6-16 shooting, C.J. McCollum was effective against Jason Terry and Alexey Shved for 17 points but there was no point in the second half that the Blazers were within double-digits. It was great.
The Rockets have three days off before playing on Friday at Memphis, in San Antonio on Sunday and at home against the Wizards on Monday. I'll leave you with three numbers: 31, 32 and 31.
Those were the minutes last night by Harden, Howard and Ariza. Brewer and Kostas Papanikolaou off the bench gave the Rockets 39 combined minutes at the 3 and 4, allowing Motiejunas to serve as the center of the reserve unit (Joey Dorsey played 8 minutes, Tarik Black less than 4) and are three most-taxed starters to get extra breathers tonight. This is the most crucial part of that deal (and a potential Josh Smith signing).
The Rockets may get less time with two of the 10 best players in the league on the floor, but the time they do play will be dominant, and a competent bench ensures leads like tonight's grow. That's what championship teams do, and the Rockets are looking more and more like one of those.