Coming into Toronto on Thursday and playing the 15-5 Raptors was not going to be an easy task for the Houston Rockets. They came into the game riding a three-game road losing streak and were just two days removed from that devastating loss against the San Antonio Spurs. Despite a tough second-half push from the Raptors, the Rockets are coming back to Houston with an impressive 119-109 win against the home team.
Here’s are some takeaways from the win.
A Perfect First Half For the Supporting Cast
While the Rockets have before had incredible games that display what the trio of Harden-Westbrook-Capela can do, the first half of this game really showed what the supporting case was capable of.
The Raptors really subdued Harden in the first half, holding him to only three field goal attempts and six points. Their entire defensive scheme was heavily focused around him. Unfortunately for Toronto, they didn’t take into account the rest of the team going off.
Houston’s Baby Big 3 (name still in the works) of Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker, and Danuel House Jr. combined for 41 of Houston’s 63 first-half points, going an astounding 14-25 from field, 10-19 from deep. That’s 52% from downtown on 19 attempts. Blistering. Between those three and Austin Rivers, the ball moved well, driving defenders off the three-point line and kicking it out until they get the best shot. As a team, the Rockets shot 11-24 from deep in the first two quarters, besting Toronto’s 8-26 from the same range.
Their defense was great too. If it weren’t for some last-minute goofs — fouling Kyle Lowry behind the three-point line and a silly turnover — Houston could have easily gone into the half up 13+. The Rockets held Toronto to only 42.6% shooting from the field in the half, saved only by a takeover performance by Pascal Siakam, who had 18 points in the first two quarters, 24 points for the game. The Rockets controlled the pace too, beating them in offensive rebounding, 9-6, and total rebounds, 26-20. More evidence of this is the fact that Houston actually beat Toronto, the best team in the league on the fast break, in fast break points in the half, 10-9.
This was by no means the best half from the entire team overall — Houston’s real Big 3 was a no-show — but it definitely shows the potential that this supporting cast has, especially if they’re healthy. Imagine if they could get just half of this on nights when their stars are on.
Know Your Role
In the first half, the Rockets were up by as much as 16. They got off to a fast start and built a big lead early. There can be talks of focus or collapse or whatever after Toronto was able to gain the lead by as much as three in the second half, but there should have never been a doubt that the Raptors were going to make a push — they had only five losses through 20 games.
What Houston did when Toronto did inevitably come back was inspiring. No one played hero ball, there were hardly any bad turnovers, and (this is by no means a dig at him) if you remove what Russell Westbrook did, there where hardly any bad shots. Harden took only three shots in the first half. Instead of going berserk and chucking it up when his team needed him, like many think he does, he went a highly-efficient 5-8 from the field, 3-5 from three, 4-4 from the free-throw line for an easy 17 points in the half. Despite a poor shooting night from Westbrook, he still grabbed nine rebounds, three offensive, in the second half alone to go along with his five assists.
House might have missed all of his second-half three-point attempts, but he didn’t take a bad one. Tucker shot almost exclusively from the corner. Rivers buried two threes when they mattered. And McLemore played a great Robin to Harden’s Batman with 14 points, 4-8 shooting from deep in the second half.
Most importantly, the heavy iso-ball Rockets had 13 assists on 17 makes (11 made threes) in the second half. Toronto had only 11 assists on 18 makes — making them work harder.
The Rockets Are Malleable
By far, the absolutely most encouraging thing from this game, and probably from any game this season, is that this team can be successful when coached away from the iso.
Sure, there were still plenty of plays where Harden was iso-ing, but for the most part, the Rockets were using it to break down defenses. Harden had plenty of hockey assists in this game, using his vision to find an open shooter out of the double-team, drag defenders out of position, allowing the secondary ball-handler to find an open man.
A few nights ago against the Hawks, the Rockets as a team had only 30 assists in a 158-point, 52-FGM game. Tonight, the Rockets had 29 assists on 40 field goals made, a far cry from their 22-assist average.
Even when things got tense for Houston, they didn’t resort to Harden making tough shots in isolation. In fact, two of Harden’s made three-pointers in the second half came off of assists, while the third came during a fast break when the defense wasn’t set. They also didn’t run away from the hot hand — a complaint many had for when Austin Rivers didn’t take any shots during the Spurs’ comeback on Tuesday. They kept feeding McLemore, and he kept providing.
If there is anything to take away from this game, it’s that Houston is seeing what the defense is giving Harden on a nightly basis, and they’re looking to adapt to that.
Overall, this was the best team win for Houston this season that didn’t involve a big outing from its stars. For the first time since game one of this year, Harden didn’t lead the team in points, and the only time it happened, they were led by Westbrook.
This will be a perfect time to build on their success, as they begin a super soft four-game stretch.