Before Game 5, there had been no game in the 2015 playoffs in which the Rockets put together 48 minutes of great team basketball.
Even in their five-game series win over the Dallas Mavericks, Rockets fans were typically left wanting more from their team, wondering why James Harden wasn't doing this or watching J.J. Barea carve up Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni. It was an impressive series performance, yes, but partly because the Rockets didn't play that well.
Game 5 was different. The Rockets won by 21 points, and it never got close in the second half. James Harden got his first triple-double of the playoffs after coming up with four during the regular season. He did this, mind you, after getting IV fluids earlier in the day. Even the announcers said he had been breathing strangely heavily. '
Early in the game, we begged Harden to attack after he passed up two contested layups in the fast break. We were wrong. On one play, he tried to get Trevor Ariza a layup, and Ariza missed. Trevor didn't do much missing last night, putting in his best game of an already-solid run of playoff ball. On the next play, he dished to a wide-open Jason Terry in the corner who also missed.
The plays were a sign of things to come. Harden was penetrating at will with DeAndre Jordan off the floor, but was making precise, brilliant passes all game long. He would have had about 15 assists if Dwight Howard didn't have a poor game finishing at the rim. We've been clamoring for a James Harden MVP-type game, and even though he didn't score 40, we'll take a 26-11-10 performance any day.
While Dwight struggled to finish at the rim, he didn't have problems with anything else. He got himself a 20-15 with 2 blocks, a steal and no turnovers. The Rockets executed their game plan of involving him early, which led to foul trouble on DeAndre Jordan. Jordan's absence keyed the Rockets' lead in the first half, just like it did in Game 2.
Just as importantly, after picking up his first foul 20 seconds into the game, Howard toned down his aggressiveness but maintained his defensive presence. He only committed one more foul for the rest of the game. With the Rockets' two superstars performing well, everyone else fell in line.
Trevor Ariza: He was everywhere. He had 22-8-3 with 3 steals and played his usual superlative defense. This game more than any other so far, he was decisive. Ariza's three-pointers are such that you know whether the ball is going in from the way he squares up. For most of the year, he's squared up and looked tentative. In Game 5, he wanted to shoot, and went 4-6 from downtown, 8-12 from the field. Contract Year who?
Josh Smith/Terrence Jones: In Kevin McHale's best adjustment yet, he flip-flopped these two in the starting lineup, taking his chances with Smith's size and passing ability against Blake Griffin and letting Terrence Jones push around Big Baby and Spencer Hawes. It worked. They combined for 21 points, 12 rebounds and shot 9-15. They didn't dominate, but that's not their job. Their job is to provide a complement to Harden and Howard, and they did just that.
Jason Terry: At some point, the JET's effort in these playoffs will require its own writeup. For now, let me just say: he has been the most consistently locked-in of any player on this team. Yes, he can't keep up with anyone consistently. But he's been great on the offensive end, moving the ball, hitting open shots, even penetrating (he does that, apparently!). He had 11-4-7 and hit 3-8 from deep. He's much more than a veteran presence in the locker room.
Corey Brewer: 5-6 from the free throw line, including 3-4 when they fouled him intentionally. That was the second-best thing about his performance. The best? The energy he gave the team, of course. He got a steal and a layup in the open court against Jamal Crawford, a put-back slam and created general chaos, as he does. He's been depressingly bad so far this series. There was nothing depressing about last night.
Clint Capela: No longer free to roam the paint against Amare Stoudemire, Capela has been largely invisible against the Clippers. No one missed him last night:
He's such a good finisher around the rim that he only needs an inch of space and the ball in his hands, and it's basically two points. My favorite moment in his game came in the fourth quarter, however, when Josh Smith passed out of a double-team, found Jason Terry in the corner, who gave it to Capela at the free throw line. The Swiss Roll was well covered and several feet outside his comfort zone. He zipped a pass to the opposite corner for Trevor Ariza, who missed the three. But still: it was a great play by Capela, who will be doing a lot more of that for the Rockets in the next few years.
Pablo Prigioni didn't have his best game, but that's OK. The Rockets can win with a few guys playing poorly. They can't win when nearly everyone does, which has been the case in these playoffs.
Two more games replicating the formula from last night -- attack early, get DeAndre Jordan in foul trouble, move the ball offensively and hustle, for crying out loud -- and we might be talking about another Rockets series victory coming back from 3-1.
It's too early for that, however. First they need to win a game in L.A. on Thursday.