Down 18 points in Toronto to the Raptors in the second quarter, James Harden and the Houston Rockets mounted a furious comeback, but, in a dramatic twist, the Rockets actually completed the comeback and picked up a sorely needed road victory against a terrific team.
Harden finished with 40 points, 14 assists and 5 rebounds, completely carrying the scoring load in the second half, and particularly the fourth quarter, in which he scored 18 points and the Rockets outscored the Raptors, 36 to 22.
The game went largely the same as every recent Rockets contest. They have ceased being maddeningly inconsistent, with effort and outcomes that vary on a game-to-game basis. They have now become maddeningly consistent, falling behind big in the first half, then scratching and crawling back with effort that only appears in second halves with double-digit deficits.
In their last 10 games, including this one, the Rockets have been outscored by a combined 69 points in the first quarter. In every single one, they lost the opening period. It has forced them to come back every time, forced James Harden into more minutes (he played 43 tonight), supposedly force J.B. Bickerstaff to overly rely on his veterans rather than trying more lineups with Montrezl Harrell or K.J. McDaniels. Michael Beasley has not seen the floor yet, and neither has Andrew Goudelock. Those felt like empty signings when Daryl Morey made them, and I guess games like this are essentially proof.
One of the more telling moments of this game was a stretch starting with about three minutes left in the third quarter, when the Rockets cut the Raptors' lead down from double-digits to about six early in the fourth. Dwight wasn't on the floor, Clint Capela was active on defense — for all of Dwight's efforts on the glass and around the basket on offense, his defensive effort in his recent stretch of good-numbers play has been deplorable — and the Rockets looked bouncy and dangerous.
But, to his credit, Dwight returned and the Rockets defense only got better. His presence on the boards kept the Raptors to one contested shot per possession, and the Beard exploded in the fourth quarter, as he is wont to do. The two connected for, I believe, five alley-oops in the game. This was the final, most important, and most impressive, one.
Corey Brewer, who kept the Rockets afloat for most of the game, continued his hot offensive performance down the stretch. That was something that made this game truly different.
And for all of our grousing about the Rockets' lack of effort, they've played their butts off in the second half for most of their recent run. The only difference against the Raptors was Brewer and Trevor Ariza making three-pointers down the stretch, allowing the Rockets to take advantage of their increased intensity on defense.
Dwight Howard fouled out with 2:08 left and the game far from closed out. Despite a 21-point, 11-rebound, 2-block performance, he was a -7 on the night. Capela re-entered the game, and down the stretch, he blocked a shot, altered another and ran the floor for a fast break alley-oop courtesy of Corey Brewer, effectively sealing the victory.
The Swiss Roll played just 10 minutes in this game and was a +11. He had a long stretch from December to early February where he looked tentative on both ends, and, frankly, terrible. But he's turned it around. He's destroying teams on the pick-and-roll again, and challenging everything at the rim again. His length and quick-leaping ability led to a handful of extra team rebound opportunities.
The secondary star of this game after the Beard was Brewer, who scored 23 points on 5-10 shooting from deep and was a +18 in his time on the floor. Only Brewer, Capela and Jason Terry saw time off the bench for Houston, as Bickerstaff has gone Full McHale, shortening the rotation and riding Harden into the ground.
But tonight, it worked. The Rockets put a little more distance between them and the Jazz, and got one of their best wins of the season. They have three more games on this road trip, against the Sixers, 76ers and Hornets. All three of those are winnable games. We've known all year that when the Rockets are at their best, they can beat anyone.
On the second night of a back to back — with just 22 hours between tipoff time and the team arriving at its hotel at 3 a.m. local time — they beat the second-best team in the East. On a day when the Warriors lost to the Lakers and the Grizzlies lost to the Suns, the Rockets completed the bizarro trifecta.
It's once again up to them to prove a great win is not an aberration. They've got 20 games left in the season to do it.