James Harden is the MVP, and a night like Saturday night, with every obstacle stacked against him, dropping 40 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 2 steals against the potentially playoff-bound Denver Nuggets, is just another line on his résumé.
The Rockets shot 5-of-24 from long range in Denver last night, the fewest three-pointers they’ve hit all year and 16 attempts fewer than they like to shoot in your average game. The Nuggets sold out in guarding the arc, and when a team decides to open driving lanes to James Edward Harden, Jr., it is playing with fire. And the Nuggets got burnt.
Harden was the only Rocket to hit more than a single three-pointer — he hit three in eight attempts — and all three were monumental in the 109-105 contest. The Rockets moved to 48-22, a full five games over the Utah Jazz with 12 games left to play, on the season.
The Rockets played — poorly — in New Orleans the night before and lost to the Pelicans who benefited from the absence of DeMarcus Cousins yet again. They arrived in Denver around 5 a.m., and the team that had cratered around a 41-14-11 performance by the Beard did little differently around him offensively.
But Clint Capela and Nene Hilario continue to prove that the Rockets really didn’t need big man help at the trade deadline, and Andrew Bogut might have been a nice thought, but his play in Dallas this year was nowhere near the level that Nene and Capela have been at since the All-Star Break. Nene turned Mason Plumlee and Nikola Jokic into crash-test dummies in his old stomping grounds, and looked 10 years younger doing it.
The problem the last two nights have been the men playing in between 1 and 5 on your lineup cards. Patrick Beverley didn’t have his best game, ultimately fouling out by hitting Will Barton on the arm on a three-pointer (he went 2-3 from the line, and shot 1-9 from deep in the game). Lou Williams went 0-4 from deep, but penetrated nicely to compensate. His defense remains quite sieve-like.
Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson each hit a three-pointer, and Trevor Ariza compensated well for his poor shooting as always, grabbing 9 crucial defensive rebounds, including the game-sealing one in the final seconds. But when the Rockets around Harden shoot a combined 2-16, it will be impossible to win more than one game in the second round of the playoffs or later.
And yet, the two most important positions in basketball, historically, have been the point guard and the center. And for the 36.5 minutes Harden plays a night, always with one of Capela and Nene, and sometimes Montrezl Harrell, against many Rockets playoff opponents, they will have the advantage in both spots.
Anderson, Ariza, Gordon and Williams are all streaky shooters. One hopes with them all on the roster, they don’t slump simultaneously, but that is what has happened. But, here’s the thing.
The Nuggets have been the best offensive team in the league since right about the new year. The Rockets held them to 105 points in 100 possessions, significantly below their average. They were without Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and a lot of their shots went in and out (at least two open Jameer Nelson three-pointers hit the rim at least four times before bouncing out).
But the Rockets, save for Williams, played good defense. Ariza, Harden and Beverley have turned into a fearsome defensive threesome, getting in passing lanes, switching effectively and contesting shots. The Rockets missed shots all night, but stepped up their defensive intensity, probably the biggest bad habit that has been consistent of the James Harden Era.
The Rockets beat a good team because they defended well and attacked the basket. They largely abandoned the three-pointer late in the game, opting instead to penetrate with force and feed the big man at the first sign of help. It worked. And it’s a good sign of things to come.