Every game matters in the Western Conference, especially games against teams with whom you figure to be jockeying for playoff seeding.
It’s with that in mind that the Houston Rockets’ loss Wednesday night, 105-103 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, was truly frustrating in a way this team hasn’t been all year. The Thunder and Rockets are firmly in the second tier of playoff teams behind the Warriors and... the Clippers, I guess, and wins against these teams are crucial.
These wins are especially crucial when you have an 11-point fourth quarter lead on the road and James Harden hasn’t even played that well. Up 100-94 with 6:27 left and the starters in, the Rockets had this one in the bag. The defense was good down the stretch, but the offense deserted them. They wouldn’t score another point until there were 0.9 seconds left in the game.
This was easily James Harden’s worst game of the season. Andre Roberson was a giant zero for the Thunder on offense, but he played masterful, disturbing defense on the Beard, who dished 13 assists, grabbed 7 rebounds and chipped in 3 steals, but shot 4-16, 1-5 from distance and an uncharacteristic 4-7 from the line to score just 13 points.
Nine Rockets played in this contest, and all of them scored at least 9 points. Ryan Anderson led the team with 14. It was one of those nights Rockets fans have dreamed about — the bench picks up the starters — but Harden couldn’t lift this team quite enough. That his fiercest competitor for the early MVP race capped the game off like this made his ineffectiveness all the more disappointing.
Thunder's Russell Westbrook w/ the left-handed poster dunk dagger over Rockets' Clint Capela (all angles) pic.twitter.com/q8OI3OTp90— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) November 17, 2016
Before having his soul swallowed by Westbrook, Clint Capela had another fine game after tearing apart the 76ers, with 13 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks and going 3-4 from the free throw line. Don’t look now, but the Swiss is on a roll from the free throw line: he’s 9/13 in his last four games.
It feels wrong to blame Harden for this game considering he did everything but score — the Rockets planned to leave Roberson wide open and it worked, and Harden was able to freelance effectively for his three steals — but did have 7 turnovers, including a crucial one on a miscommunication with Trevor Ariza with just seconds left. Harden also missed the Rockets’ last, best chance, a wide open three off beautiful ball movement that wasn’t particularly close.
You can’t win ‘em all, but you have to win ‘em most in the NBA. The Rockets are now 6-5, with losses to the Lakers, Spurs, Thunder, Hawks and Cavaliers. Those are five good to great teams, but this one was the worst one yet. The Rockets might find themselves squaring off with Oklahoma City in the 4-5 or 3-6 matchup come April, and home court will really matter. Let’s hope this game won’t.
In happier news, Patrick Beverley returns tomorrow as the Rockets host the Jazz. Yet another big game, and this one might be even more important, all things considered. Vernon Maxwell will be in the house, and Patrick Beverley’s coming back. The two most ferocious little guys the Rockets have had in the last three decades, courtside at the same time. Who’s ready to fight the Jazz?
CORRECTION: The Rockets play the Blazers Thursday. I am really dumb.