This feels like vindication.
It was a victory for the stubborn Rockets fans among us — myself included — who have held out hope that J.B. Bickerstaff would finally turn the keys in the Rockets' hidden engine. Putting Clint Capela and K.J. McDaniels in for extended stretches over Dwight Howard and Corey Brewer.
And Bickerstaff finally did it against the Thunder, watching Capela help a Howard-less Rockets team come back from a 12-point deficit, then watching them fall behind again when Dwight returned. The worst the Rockets looked in the first half when they played the Thunder basically even was when Corey Brewer was touching the ball (he finished 2-9 from the floor).
Then, Bickerstaff essentially said "f*** it," and put Capela back in until he fouled out with less than a minute to go and the game already locked up. He let K.J. work out some initial nerves to come back to hit a huge three-pointer, a crazy layup and play active defense, and McDaniels ended up with a season-high 17:52 minutes. Bickerstaff played the guys who were hungriest, and it paid off. It's a shame it took until the 77th game of the season to do it.
But it worked. The Rockets won, 108-100. McDaniels finished with 10 points, 4 rebounds and an assist. The drumbeat of fans like me who believe the Rockets have no choice but to play him more is only going to get louder if he gets benched again.
Consider this: McDaniels got benched against the Bulls on Thursday. The Rockets lost. Before that, against the Cavaliers, K.J. played 17 minutes and the Rockets won. Since K.J. has come back from the D-League after the All-Star break, the Rockets are 6-2 when K.J. gets double-digit minutes. This can no longer be considered a coincidence.
Let's not overlook James Harden. The Beard had one of his best games of the season, dropping in 41 points, dishing out 9 assists along with 4 rebounds and 3 steals. That third steal was huge: with less than a minute left and the Rockets leading by six points, Harden read the play the Thunder were running and cut off Kevin Durant's pass along the baseline. He then hit Patrick Beverley with a perfect outlet pass for a dunk, and that sealed the game.
What a game-changing moment that steal by Harden & finish by Beverley was! https://t.co/43Zz2Kvkb0— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) April 3, 2016
At halftime, the Rockets wound up down a point because of a bungled possession by, and it pains me to say this, K.J. McDaniels. He didn't get a shot up at the end of the shot clock, then the Thunder called timeout and Russell Westbrook got a layup to end the half. James Harden had 17 points, Trevor Ariza had 12 and Donuts had 3 assists. They looked, most importantly, engaged defensively and adequate offensively.
That was basically the case all game. Despite Dwight Howard's piss poor offensive effort — to go along with some apparent on-court griping about touches — he was a part of a coordinated team defense in the first half. In the second half, that was no longer the case.
Capela came in and dominated on defense, blocking shots at the rim, taking a charge, using his hands in the passing lanes. He was the defensive partner to Harden's offensive brilliance that Dwight has been at his best. Capela finished with 9 points, 6 boards, 4 blocks and 2 steals and a very strong case for more playing time.
We should also throw some credit Patrick Beverley's way. Russell Westbrook was one assist away from yet another triple-double, but he also had 8 turnovers, and Bev's defense had a lot to do with it. He did brick everything in sight for 94% of the game, but in the last four minutes, he took over the game like only he can, hitting a three, getting a transition bucket, stopping Kevin Durant from posting him up and being a general pest.
The Rockets played great, and for the most part, Dwight Howard and Corey Brewer were nowhere to be found. Andrew Goudelock even came in and did some stuff. Not terrific stuff, but, you know. Stuff. It was a fun time.
The Rockets are now a half-game back of the Mavericks and Jazz in the playoff hunt. Their next game, against the Mavs on Wednesday. Is the biggest of the season. The Rockets have never had any momentum, any rhythm, all year. Now would be a good place to start.