It wasn't a sweep, but it was every bit as sweet in Houston tonight as the Rockets put away the Mavericks at home with a dominant finish to the fourth quarter, keyed by the true MVP, James Harden, and Terrence Jones' best game in a Rockets uniform. Houston won 103-94 and took their first round series 4-1.
The Toyota Center crowd may have showed up late (seriously, that was shameful), but the Rockets sure didn't. James Harden made his first three shots, including a pull-up three in transition that served as the official invitation for the Houston fans to get in playoff mode. He had a classic performance, with 28 points and 8 assists.
Based on how hot the Rockets looked for the first quarter and a half, it was distressing, but not remotely surprising, that they went into halftime up by only six points. The Rockets went into halftime shooting 54 percent from the field (but 3-12 at the line), and the Mavericks were sitting at 38 percent. Houston's 15 turnovers in the first half kept the Mavs within range. They averaged 17 a game in the regular season.
They cleaned it up nice though, cutting the turnovers to 6 in the second half to compensate for cooling down from the field. In fact, they were so solid that they were able to keep the Mavericks at arm's length after James Harden picked up his fourth foul with a minute left in the third quarter. Kevin McHale didn't send the Beard back in until Dallas cut it to five with six minutes left in the fourth quarter, after which the Rockets stepped right on the Mavericks' throats and closed it out.
Dwight Howard was in nearly the whole time Harden was resting, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds and controlling the game to prevent any serious runs. It was pretty nice to see. Have we mentioned that he's back? He finished with 18 points, 19 boards, 4 blocks and 4 steals. That's a vintage Hakeem line!
Terrence Jones still looks stronger and faster than he did at any point before this season, but he seemed to have lost all confidence in his shot in the series, which he was draining from the midrange in the regular season. He still looked great penetrating in general, abused Dirk more and more on the pick and roll, and finally hit a huge three late in the fourth quarter and proceeded to lay waste to the Mavericks to finish the game.
T-Jones finished with 15 points, though it felt like more. Let's hope he can carry that momentum into the next series, because if T-Jones is hitting jumpers and finishing strong at the rim, the Rockets offense is completely unstoppable.
Josh Smith was shooting 41 percent from three entering Game 5, and he didn't show any signs of slowing down (2-6 for the game). He was far more engaged on defense than in Game 4, though his turnovers remain a problem -- both the Clippers and Spurs are better at turning those into points than Dallas.
James Harden should be thanking Al-Farouq Aminu for giving him what amounted to a scout-team version of Kawhi Leonard to go up against (that's a football reference, you see -- stay with me here). The lengthier small forwards have given Harden trouble (especially Kawhi) on the ball this season, and Aminu deserves to take a lot of credit for Harden's inconsistent shooting in the series. However, by Game 5, Harden seemed to have kind of figured something out, shooting 9-19 from the field. I have no clever introduction for this dunk, but it deserves inclusion anyway:
If the Spurs make it through the Clippers, Kawhi's pterodactyl wings will force Harden to resort to distributor mode as much or more than he did in this series. It will be on the other Rockets to make the open shots Harden will create for them. But if the gains the Beard made against Aminu in this game can stick, maybe he can break the Leonard Lockdown. (Of course, if the Clippers advance, he will be a nightmare for them.)
Jason Terry is completely out of gas. You want to know why I'm okay with that? Because Pablo Prigioni has emerged as the Rockets' crunch time point guard, and he is the most dependable, trustworthy-with-the-ball point guard the Rockets have had in a long time. He is far better on defense than a man of his age and slowness should be. That's not to say that he's good, but he is great at getting in passing lanes and draws offensive fouls like a true Euroleague veteran. McHale's finishing lineup in this game was Pablo-Harden-Brewer-Jones-Howard, and my God did it look good.
The Rockets took down their interstate rivals, made Mark Cuban sad, and are through to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Who's pumped?