• Print

Force Of Nature

Rockets reveal grittier side while Harden continues MVP-caliber play

HOUSTON - After three consecutive wins that were heavy on style, speed and offensive pyrotechnics, the Rockets knew they were going to need to show off the grittier, more down and dirty version of themselves Monday night against the Bobcats.

Charlotte specializes in such affairs, and that muck-it-up formula has worked wonders for a team that appears well on its way to making just its second postseason appearance in franchise history. The Rockets, meanwhile, prefer to add more pace and space to the proceedings, allowing their cadre of playmakers plenty of room to show off the full force of their offensive firepower.

That is not to say, however, that Houston can’t make itself right at home in the muck and mud if the situation calls for it – as was the case Monday night. The Rockets came in ready to scratch and claw with the Bobcats, and then spent the next 48 minutes making that mindset manifest on the basketball court.

It could be seen in the way Dwight Howard and Omer Asik made Al Jefferson battle for every inch of space while forcing him to launch 17 shots in order to get his 20 points. It was there in the way Terrence Jones bullied Josh McRoberts on one end and then dutifully danced and kept up with the quicksilver Kemba Walker at the other. And it was most definitely on display for all to see in the fourth quarter when Chandler Parsons and Pat Beverley shook off whatever internal doubts had been borne from their earlier shooting woes to knock down a pair of dagger-laden triples that catapulted Houston to a hard-fought 100-89 victory.

Oh sure, even amid the dirt and grime of Monday’s mud wrestling match the Rockets were still able to sneak in more than a few maneuvers that came straight from the pages of their pace-and-space handbook. The ball movement that had carried the club through its previous three games might not have been visible from wire-to-wire tonight, but it still made much more than a mere cameo appearance. Houston’s players patiently poked and probed the Bobcats’ stout defense, and when they recognized Charlotte’s paint-packing tactics, they never hesitated in making the extra pass to find a shooter who had plenty of airspace with which to let fly from beyond the arc. Then there was the chutzpah of Jeremy Lin, and the first half shot making of Jordan Hamilton.

But more than anything there was James Harden, overseeing all with the calm, steady decision-making of a Jedi master who only uses lethal force when absolutely necessary. But when that choice has indeed been made, get your intergalactic behind out of the galaxy because the Death Star doesn’t have anything on the kind of destruction he’s dishing out these days. Harden was brilliant yet again Monday night, always there to put a premature end to any hopes Charlotte harbored of springing an upset.

There is simply no good answer for how to handle him if you’re unfortunate enough to be a defender tasked with the assignment of attempting to slow him right now – not with the way he’s stroking the ball from distance. The 24-year-old is currently in the zone of his life and, most remarkably (and terrifying) of all: He’s been in that state of Shangri-La for about two solid months now. He is making the right plays for both himself and his teammates, leaving a swath of broken dreams and defenses behind in his wake.

“The confidence I have in my guys is unbelievable,” he said when asked about the big shots Parsons and Beverley hit in the final frame; the first of which came via a pass from his hot hand. “They struggled early in the game, but I know how much work they put in practicing in the gym. My making the right pass at the right time was at an all-time high and they made all-time shots.”

Kevin McHale put it much more simply: “James just took over.”

So he did, on a night when the Rockets revealed a bit of their grittier side. The style Houston employed en route to victory was decidedly different than the more free-flowing manner it had put to good use in its three previous wins. But one rather important constant remained: James Harden continued to play at an MVP level. The Force, it would seem, is strong with this one.