Would you believe the Houston Rockets, without Dwight Howard and Clint Capela, had one of their best wins of the season against an Eastern Conference playoff team? It's true! The Rockets rolled over the Miami Heat by a score of 115-102, and the starters took a seat with three minutes to go in the game.
Josh Smith was the starting center tonight with Howard suspended and Capela hurt, so of course he got in foul trouble early. But he managed to stay on the floor for a crucial run in the third quarter when he hit a couple three-pointers. As always, Smoove is a tantalizing force on those nights when he hits from three. The Rockets can beat anybody on those nights, but you still simply can't count on it ever being one of those nights. Tonight, those threes set him off, as he had a couple of excellent plays, one pass and one finish, on shot-fake drives. He scored 19 points, a season-high mark for him.
Smith's backup, Terrence Jones, was his usual all-over-the-place self. As the center in small-ball units, he's always been a disaster who bites at every pump fake and doesn't box out the offensive glass. But he can still look great as the roll man in a combo with Harden from time to time, and he's excellent at running the floor as a trailer.
James Harden had a vintage MVP Beard game, with 26 points and a career-high 14 assists. He also played great defense on the night, apart from a couple of brief lapses. He held Dwyane Wade to a very ordinary performance when the two were matched up, and was the penetrating, distributing force the Rockets needed without a reliable post threat to turn to.
With the Rockets shorthanded, you knew they were going to have to get a great night from an unusual source, and nobody on this roster is better suited for one of those nights than Marcus Thornton. He played a huge chunk of the second half in place of James Harden (and when Harden came back, Trevor Ariza), and hit shots outside and in while distributing as a secondary pick-and-roll ball handler. He had 18 points on 7-11 shooting.
For all the great individual offensive performances, it was the team defense in the second half that really stood out. The Heat, missing big man Hassan Whiteside, really were in no position to punish the Rockets for going super small. So the Rockets did what they do at their best: rotating like crazy on the outside and jumping passing lanes to start fast breaks. Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza, Ty Lawson and Terrence Jones are all subpar finishers in the half-court, but on the break they're more than adequate. Early in the game, the Rockets aborted a couple of promising breaks with poor communication, but it all smoothed out in that sweet second half.
JB Bickerstaff talked yesterday about how the Rockets need to commit to defense more as a team, and while it's fair to wonder when the next swoon will come (after all, this win broke a three-game losing streak), it's great to see the team respond so quickly to their coaches' message. The Heat are not a great offensive team, but the Rockets really did look great as a team for most of the game on defense.
Next up for the Rockets is a date with the Phoenix Suns, who just fired their head coach and had a great half of a game against the Toronto Raptors. Dwight will be back, but Clint Capela and Donatas Motiejunas might not. Who knows what version of the Rockets we'll see then.