The Rockets lost Tuesday evening, their second in their first four games. But, in falling 128-120 on the road to the undefeated, reigning NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, they showed they should be exciting to watch all year long.
It was just the gaudy point totals. It wasn’t just the otherworldly performance from James Harden. It was the effort on defense the team showed in the second half, chasing the ball around the perimeter, closing out on shooters, causing turnovers. it was watching Eric Gordon’s best game of the year so far, including stretches of truly good defense.
It wasn’t enough, and that’s OK. It’s four games into this experiment, and the Rockets are not at full strength. The Cavaliers are, and when LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love combine for 70 points, there’s not a lot a team can do to defeat them.
Back to Harden: 41 points, 15 assists, 7 rebounds, a steal and just one turnover. He was a +11 on the game. He easily could have had 20 assists, but he passed to K.J. McDaniels and Clint Capela too many times. Neither of them had their best games. Beyond the numbers, the Beard looked like a maestro.
The ball movement and hustle were evident early on: this team is unselfish and, just as importantly, decisive with their passes. This play blew up Rockets twitter, and rightfully so. It has everything: K.J. making things happen, terrific ball-movement (including Corey Brewer turning down two open threes) and a Harden three-pointer.
When Harden was in the game, the offense purred like the engine of an American muscle car. He was getting into the lane at will and finishing with ease, and he was finding open shooters all over the perimeter. They started knocking down three-pointers in the fourth quarter: four from Gordon, three from Ariza and one from Anderson.
With the hot shooting late, the team finished 17-44 from deep, or 38.6 percent. If the Rockets shoot that well from deep, they’ll win most games. The Cavs just aren’t most teams.
A few miscues made the difference in this one. Harden missed three free throws in the waning minutes that could have made the game much closer. Clint Capela had a few turnovers in the row in the fourth that led the Cavs to roll off eight easy points fast, and a two-point deficit when Harden returned after a brief rest became a 10-point hole in a blink. The Rockets didn’t recover.
This isn’t the result one would hope for, but the Rockets played their tails off on Tuesday night. I’m confident this road trip will not be a disaster.
Some parting thoughts:
- Where did you go, Clint Capela’s confidence? He’s always been a little twitchy with the ball, but against the champs he looked even more skittish. Nene badly outplayed him even considering Capela got in foul trouble early. The Brazilian played 24 minutes, Capela played 8 and the Rockets tried to get by with Ryan Anderson at the five for an ill-advised stretch. He needs to better.
- Speaking of playing time, K.J. McDaniels got some extended run when Trevor Ariza had to get stitches put in his face from an inadvertent Tristan Thompson elbow. He looked as he looks these days: brilliant flashes of hustle and athleticism, mixed with inconsistent defensive play and woeful shooting. He went 0-3 from deep and is now 2-9 from distance on the year. Teams are leaving him wide open and he’s not capitalizing.
- I’m going to reserve judgment for a time on Anderson. This is a guy with years of stellar offensive contributions in the league, and he’s still sorting himself out. Four games just isn’t enough time to write this guy off, as many on social media seem to want to do. He’s sometimes abysmal on defense, but had OK moments. He can clearly shoot. The difference for him will be rebounding. If the Rockets keep getting killed on the glass and on D when he’s in there, it’s gonna be tough for D’Antoni to keep trotting him out on the floor for 30 minutes a game. 12 points, 4 rebounds for $20 million a year is not going to cut it. But I think he’ll improve.