It was 1:15 a.m. Eastern time by the final buzzer of the first game of the Rockets season, and it came not a nanosecond too soon. KD’s shot missed, the Rockets won.
Wait, the Rockets won?! That game? The one where they gave up 70 points in the first half, Chris Paul played poorly then got hurt, Clint Capela couldn’t catch a ball and Eric Gordon didn’t make a three-pointer? The one where they played the Warriors on ring night, when championship teams were 13-3 since 2000 entering last night? They won that game?!
In the warm light of the morning, I can confirm: yes, the Rockets won last night. They are 1-0. The Warriors are 0-1. And the thing I can’t stop thinking about is how sure I was all game long that the Rockets a) would lose and b) could play much better. Well, they won, but the second piece of that is certainly true.
Paul shot just 2-9 and hobbled around on a bum knee (best guess is he sits tonight against the Kings and Eric Gordon and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute run the bench offense in his stead) until he left the game with about five minutes left. It might wind up being his worst offensive performance as a Rocket, even though he finished with 11 assists. His defensive capability was clear, even slowed, with 8 rebounds, 2 steals and blocking a Draymond Green layup attempt.
Clint Capela, he of the relentless offseason TDS hype, laid an egg against the Warriors, faced with a matchup he is not capable of competing in. He finished with 12 points, but was a team-worst -23. He jittered away passes, missed a dunk and was a piece of the Rockets’ subpar transition defense.
So how did they do it? That glorious, glorious small-ball lineup.
Down the stretch, the five-man unit of Harden, Gordon, Tucker, LMAM and Trevor Ariza made a 13-5 run that closed the game, with Ryan Anderson at the 5 for Mbah a Moute in stretches. They crashed the boards, closed out hard on shooters, made huge shots and benefited from Golden State’s shooting regression to the mean. The Warriors finished the game shooting 53.3 percent from deep, but they were over 60 percent in the first half. Only one of Nick Young’s three-pointers came after intermission.
They can’t win this way against every team. The Spurs would feast on them with Tucker and Ariza guarding Gasol and Aldridge. But that’s the beauty of this team: Capela played well in the Spurs series, and Nene would have been great had he been healthy. They have the personnel to go big when needed. Even Ryan Anderson seems to have recaptured the rebounding verve of his youth, if even for one night.
Does opening night prove the Rockets have a chance against the healthy Warriors in a seven-game series? Probably not. Draymond Green’s injury might be an easy reason to explain away a loss for Warriors fans, but last night reminded us that every NBA team is one injury away from being significantly worse.
What last night proved is that the Rockets can hang with anyone. They are deep and they are loaded with talented veterans. For the first time since I can remember, there is no second-rounder on a rookie contract threatening to take up rotation minutes (sorry Zhou Qi). Everyone on the Rockets who played last night could start for half of the teams in the NBA.
This is the best Rockets team, on paper, since they were hanging banners at the Summit. They can beat anyone. And anyone can be beaten.