The beginning of this game was a rough watch. Both teams came out flat, preventing any sort of flow from emerging. The Rockets still managed to get a ton of open looks due to James Harden’s usual individual brilliance, but seven of their first eight attempts from beyond the arc went in-and-out.
Despite the poor shooting, the Rockets managed to race out to a 12-4 lead due in large part to the Magic seeming spiritually hungover from their upset win versus the Celtics the night before. The entire team seemed dog tired, coming up short on jumpers and struggling to get back on defense, creating easy opportunities for the Rockets.
Marquese Chriss received non-garbage minutes for the first time in quite a while but unfortunately looked the part of a guy who hadn’t played in months.
Ultimately, the Rockets won the quarter 26-18, tying their fewest points allowed in a first quarter all season as well as fewest threes allowed with zero.
The Magic started to get their act together, beginning the quarter 3/3 from beyond the arc to cut the lead down to four, gaining momentum before hometown kid Austin Rivers decided to put his stamp on the game. The Winter Park native hit a step-back three before getting a “cookie” leading to a dunk to get his early point total up to 13 and weather the Magic run.
Harden then re-entered the game and proceeded to set the table for the rest of the roster to stretch the Rockets lead. Despite struggling himself (1-9 from three), Harden otherwise played as complete a half as one could ask for, sniffing a triple-double in his first 20 minutes (16 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, and 3 steals).
The half ended with the Rockets up 59-52, but the team appeared frustrated that they had squandered two double-digit leads.
Rivers picked up right where he left off to start the second half, scoring 8 points in quick succession, including a stare-down three that he totally meant to bank. That brought his point total to 21 on an uber-efficient 8-9 from the field.
By this point, the defensive energy that helped the Rockets limit the Magic to 18 in the first quarter had disappeared. Coach Mike D’Antoni, usually even-keeled, uncharacteristically lost his temper at the team when their collective aloofness on the defensive end allowed the Magic to gain their first lead since it was 4-2.
Harden continued to struggle from distance (1/12), but remained dominant getting to the rim and drawing fouls, stretching his 30-point streak to 16 before the third quarter had even finished.
Marquese Chriss entered the game once again and looked far more competent this time, contesting shots and snaring a few difficult rebounds.
However, the Rockets finished the quarter only leading 88-86, momentum clearly favoring the Magic.
The Rockets began the quarter on a 10-2 run fueled by P.J. Tucker’s activity on both ends to stretch the lead back to double digits.
Rivers then continued his excellent night, scoring an easy layup off of a rocker step before making a teardrop to get his point total up to 25, his highest in Houston.
However, the Rockets then went cold, missing nine straight threes, allowing the Magic to gain a 109-107 lead with under three minutes to play. The momentum then swung entirely in the Magic’s favor, as the Rockets failed to score on two key possessions, while the Magic got timely baskets from their veterans D.J. Augustin and Nikola Vucevic. A Vucevic hook extended their three-minute run to 16-2 and stretched their lead to seven with 1:21 left, effectively ending the game.
The teams traded baskets once again and the final buzzer sounded, the Rockets falling 116-109 in Orlando to drop their record to 24-18.
Harden finished with an impressive line of 38 points, 9 rebounds, 12 assists, and 4 steals, but was only 11/32 from the field and a dreadful 1/17 from three. With the tear he’s been on recently, a night like this was bound to happen.
Aaron Gordon and the aforementioned Vucevic led the Magic with 22 points apiece, the win improving their record to 19-24 and inching them closer to one of the East’s final playoff spots.
The Rockets are back in action tomorrow night at the Toyota Center against the sputtering Memphis Grizzlies. I’d say it’s a safe bet Harden shoots better in that one.