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Game Day: Rockets at Kings

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 129-103 win over the Sacramento Kings

  • Rockets vs. Kings
    James Harden scores a season-high 43 points and the Houston Rockets route the Sacramento Kings 129-103 on Tuesday night.
  • Harden Drops 43
    James Harden scores a season-high 43 points in the Rockets win over the Kings.
  • Rockets vs. Kings: First half
    James Harden has 30 points at halftime and the Rockets lead the Kings 69-51 at the break.
  • Look Out Below
    Dwight Howard runs the fast break and James Harden lobs it up to Howard for the high-flying stuff.

SACRAMENTO - While James Harden and Dwight Howard made sure to enjoy their time in the Big Easy during the NBA’s marquee midseason event, their minds never strayed far from the big picture. Both came into the season with far more lofty goals than simply earning an All-Star berth and all the perks that come with it. As amazing an individual accomplishment as that is, each had been there and done that.

Howard came to Houston to win championships. That had been at the forefront of his early conversations with both his new superstar partner in crime and everyone in the Rockets organization during the recruitment process. That was the all-consuming aspiration that helped to form the NBA’s newest dynamic duo. And that was the oft-discussed topic at hand as both players arrived in New Orleans knowing much more would be required of them to reach the prize they coveted above any other.

Though each had performed at a high level over the course of the season’s first few months, both players had previously proven themselves capable of ascending to even greater heights. Given the seemingly optimum way their respective games theoretically meshed, it appeared only a matter of time before they would eventually push each other to that elevated peak. Now, less than two weeks later, their play has reached the rarified air of a dizzying altitude. Not coincidentally, their team has followed suit.  

“It’s something (he and Harden) talked about during the All-Star break,” Howard said in the aftermath of Houston’s 129-103 romp over the Kings. “Coming back and making sure we turn it up a notch and making sure everybody follows us. We’re trying to do our best to get everybody behind us and do our best to make sure we’re playing our best basketball leading into the playoffs.”

What that looks like: Howard is racking up double-doubles with ease while averaging more than 23 points, 13 rebounds and nearly three blocks per game during the month of February. And in the wake of his 43-point explosion Tuesday night against the Kings – representing the second time in less than a week that he’s set a season high for scoring – Harden’s monthly numbers are similarly striking, with averages of 27.3 points and more than five assists and four boards per contest, all while shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc and better than 91 percent from the free throw line. Both players are enjoying their finest month of the season from a statistical standpoint, and as a result the Rockets are thriving, achieving official ‘hottest team in the NBA status’ by virtue of having won 10 of their last 11 games.

This is the sort of prolific partnership Houston envisioned when it paired these two together last summer. It seemed a match made in hoops heaven: the preeminent pick-and-roll big man playing beside the perfect pick-and-roll perimeter playmaker. With Howard taking ownership of the paint on both ends and Harden supplying one drool-worthy pocket pass after another, the Rockets appeared ready to soar into the stratosphere. Injuries and growing pains halted Houston’s entry into that state of nirvana in the early going. But with improved health, increased familiarity and more reps, the Rockets are starting to receive a steady stream of basketball bliss.

“Our chemistry is building,” Harden says. “It’s difficult to play with another superstar in the first month or two and just be instantly great. If you look at LeBron and D-Wade, they struggled their first couple months together, and even at times during their first year together. But somehow, someway they got it to go and now they’re won two championships.

“It’s going to take us some time, too. Earlier this season I was either going to the rim and not noticing him or trying to force him the basketball when I had the layup. When to drive and when to get him the ball; when to throw that little lob and when to finish myself – basically it comes down to reading the defense, which I’m pretty good at.”

Indeed he is – a fact of life the Kings’ defense discovered the hard way Tuesday night. He’s increasingly making the right reads and decisions, and his chemistry with Howard is currently clicking at such a seemingly telepathic level as to make their now nightly alley-oops appear routine. What’s not at all run-of-the-mill, however, are the numbers they’re producing. When Harden and Howard have shared the floor together during the month of February, Houston’s offense has reached astronomical levels, producing an unfathomable offensive rating of 117.2 and an overall net rating of +13.9.

The toxicity of the pick-your-poison dilemma they present to opponents has never been higher. They are an increasingly complex problem to solve and people around the league are starting to sit up and take notice. What began as mere curiosity is starting to transform into legitimate fear. But the truly terrifying part lies in the very real prospect that this tandem still has so much room left for growth and improvement.

“Our pick-and-roll is going to be key,” says Harden, when asked what elements of his on-court chemistry with Howard still require refinement. “He’s so dominant rolling toward the basket. He draws so much attention and myself playing downhill draws attention. So if we can perfect that it’s going to create opportunities for our teammates to catch-and-shoot and drive as well. Then we’ll really be hard to stop.”

Bear in mind, this team is already next to impossible to stop. Houston has spent a significant chunk of the season ranked among the top-five offenses in the league and resides comfortably within that elite residence now. But of course the crux of Harden’s overall message wasn’t really about offense at all. He and Howard didn’t team up to chase scoring titles, set records or win 10 games out of 11. They joined forces to win championships and prompt parades. By the time they reached New Orleans, they had a better understanding of how much more work remained to be done.

They’re not there yet. Not even close, really. The biggest questions they must address can’t fully be answered until April, May and June. But the strides they’ve already taken have been so significant and so resounding that the echoes are starting to attract attention from the rest of the league. The Rockets are officially a problem. Howard and Harden are figuring out. And with each double-double and every pocket pass, the big picture vision they discussed in the Big Easy is slowly but surely coming to life. 

POST-GAME OBSERVATIONS

Coming into tonight’s game, it was abundantly clear Sacramento had nothing even remotely resembling an answer for how to James Harden. Houston’s All-Star two-guard had torched the Kings in his three prior meetings against Sacramento and he entered tonight’s contest having scored more points against the NorCal club over the past two seasons than had any other NBA player. Go figure, attempting to slow him with the likes of rookie Ben McLemore or journeyman Travis Outlaw hadn’t been a successful proposition.

So it hardly came as a surprise when Harden began the game by picking up where he had left off last month, surgically carving up the soft, fleshy underbelly of the Kings’ porous defense. But 30 first half points – 22 of them coming in the first quarter when he finished the period by scoring 18 straight – yeah, that might have been a wee bit unexpected. Harden transformed himself into the Human Torch about midway through the opening period, emitting flames from his fingertips that singed the bottom of the net seemingly every shot. When his final attempt of the first half actually dared to rim in and out, the end result was almost as shocking as hit stat line up to that point: 30 points on 9-of-14 shooting and a game-high six assists just for good measure.

Harden would have easily surpassed his career-high tonight (he finished with 43 points), but Houston had the game so well in hand that he didn’t even need to get off the bench in the fourth quarter.

“I was just trying to be aggressive,” he said afterwards. “It didn’t matter who was guarding me. Dwight did a great job, too. He made some great post moves and made the right pass from the double-team. It was just an all-around great effort. These are the types of wins, especially late in the season like this, that we’ve got to lock down and focus on."

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- Prior to this season, the Rockets had not had a 40-point first quarter since the 2007-08 season. After tonight’s 42-point opening period, Houston now has four such 40-point first quarter detonations alone.

- Also covered in today’s preview: the Kings’ 28th-ranked transition D, which Houston oh so happily took full advantage of for large stretches of tonight’s contest. The Rockets followed their game plan to a ‘T’ (read: run after every single Sacramento miss) and the resulting run-outs led to an all-you-can eat buffet of layups, dunks, and-1s and other assorted fast break scoring opportunities.

And while the Rockets’ offense was obviously overpowering and will receive all the highlights, don't overlook the fact that it was the team's stout D (at least during the game's early stages) that sparked so many of those transition points.

“We wanted to get stops and run, get stops and go,” said Houston head coach Kevin McHale. “That’s how we always play best anyway. We were able to get some run-outs and some odd-man breaks, guys finished and we had a huge start to the game.”

- Man, if someone you know ever needs an example of the bipolar nature of Kings basketball, just have them watch Sacramento’s four games versus Houston this year. Their very best and worst will all be on display. Just a jarring, mesmerizing and utterly confounding collection of talent.

- Speaking of which, DeMarcus Cousins picked up 5 fouls and two technicals in less than 17 minutes of action tonight, earning himself an early ejection from the game. And while Boogie’s reputation will surely find itself a talking point among basketball scribes tomorrow, it should be noted that Dwight Howard’s dominance played just as big a role in the enigmatic center’s unraveling. Howard began the game in masterful fashion on both ends, and even a first quarter injury scare couldn’t put a damper on his dominance as he returned to rack up a tidy 20 points, 11 rebounds and two blocked shots in just 25 minutes of play.

Yes, Harden will (quite rightfully) own the headlines from this game. But Howard’s fantastic February play continued Tuesday night, and it packed quite the punch as well.

- Jordan Hamilton made his Rockets debut tonight, and likely did more than enough to ensure addition opportunities for playing time will be in his immediate future. The University of Texas product acquitted himself quite nicely by stuffing the stat sheet with 12 points, five rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block.

“Just being with a good group, they made me feel comfortable right away,” said the former Longhorn. “I’m just doing what the coaches want me to do and going to continue to chime in and get along with guys and I think I’ll be good.

“It’s a pretty simple offense, so the main thing is just getting out and running, helping out rebounding and different things.”

- With their 129-103 win, the Rockets now improve to 39-18 on the season with a mega matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers looming in LA less than 24 hours from now. Just as a point of reference, the ’93-’94 Rockets were 41-16 after 57 games that season. So yeah, this current club has been humming along quite nicely.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

Tonight’s game…

“We wanted to play well. We came out, we got on them early and got a big lead and just kind of kept it all game. Great start by the guys and their defense was solid. Got out and ran. James (Harden) had a phenomenal first quarter, had a great game. Nice to have Jordan (Hamilton) get a little time out there. Like I said I thought it was a good win. When you get a big lead early you’re always a little concerned but keeping everybody’s interest but they did a nice job.”

Emphasis on Kings’ transition defense…

“We wanted to get stops and run. Stop and go. Stop and go. That’s how we play best anyways. We were able to get it. Got some odd man breaks, guys finished and had a huge start to the game.”

Month of February…

“Guys have played well. It’s a player’s league. When teams do well players play well so guys have played well. Dwight has had a hell of a month. James has had a hell of a month. Patrick Beverley really played well for us. We’ve got guys back, got Omer (Asik) back. Just a lot of things but most important is the guys have played well.”

JAMES HARDEN

Taking advantage of the fast break…

“That’s how we want to play every single game. We want to get stops and get out on transition so I just tried to be aggressive and my teammates did a good job of outletting the basketball and making the right pass.”

Not playing fourth quarter…

“Coach did the right thing. We were up by a large amount. There’s a game tomorrow. It’s important that we got the win.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

Having to leave the game…

“I just know that I bumped knees with DeMarcus (Cousins). He’s a lot younger than me so he’s able to recover faster. I was happy to get back out there. It still hurts now but I just wanted to finish the game and try and help my team win.”

On James Harden…

“He just took over. He had a lot of three’s, got to the free throw line and he attacked the basket, which is what we need him to do all game.”

KINGS HEAD COACH MICHAEL MALONE

On why he believes DeMarcus Cousins got a technical;

“He lost his composure, that’s all that I saw. He lost his composure and he got thrown out of the game.”

On Cousins getting ejected:

“It’s disappointing. To be honest, I’m more disappointed in how we played than any individual. Do I condone his actions? Not at all. Does he have to handle himself better? Sure he does. But, for us to come out and play the way that we did in the first quarter was unacceptable. You can have bad games and off nights at times, but the one constant that should never be questioned is your effort. For us to allow them to come out and score 42 points with 18 fastbreak points in the first quarter—that’s just crazy. At least we competed after that. The second quarter was better and the third and fourth were okay. That’s the best team in the NBA right now, since January 1. We allowed them to come in here and establish their dominance very early in the game.”

On the team’s defense:

“It’s not concerning—it’s disappointing. Concerning would be if we had another night of bad defense, but our defense has been a lot better lately. The Rockets are a very good basketball team. I give a lot of credit to them. James Harden, obviously, didn’t ‘feel us’ at all tonight on his way to 43 points. Dwight Howard had his way with us all well. I’m more concerned about the lack of effort that we had to start the game. We haven’t done that in a long time, so I’m hoping that it’s just a blip on the radar. We’ll get back at it in LA on Friday night. Losing, missing shots, making mistakes—those are all one thing. Lack of effort and pride, like we showed in that first quarter—that’s what is concerning.”

On the lack of effort in tonight’s game:

“I don’t know. As I mentioned, we haven’t done that lately. For us to come out here after two solid wins, having played very good defense, not ready to play—I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know why we did that. I know that it’s not acceptable. I will watch it and we’ll work on it tomorrow and we’ll get ready for our next game. There’s going to be some off nights and tonight was one of them. By no means am I going to panic because this is not who we’ve been this season. It’s one game and hopefully we will learn from it and realize that we just can’t think that we can just show up against a high-caliber team like that thinking that we’re going to fair-well.”

More on DeMarcus Cousins:

“He’s like I am—he’s a work in progress. No one in our organization is a finished product. He’s making the effort to try to get better but obviously he let his emotions get the best of him tonight. We will just have to get back on track and not allow it to get to that point. The funny thing is, when he got thrown out it seemed like I was trying to get a couple of techs and he was coming over to get me. It’s unfortunate but I know that he has come a long way, but he still has a ways to go. And so do I.”

ISAIAH THOMAS

When asked what caused the lack of energy at the start of the game:

“If I had the answer, it wouldn’t have been like that. We just weren’t ready to play and that team was. For whatever reason, we didn’t bring it, and they jumped on us.”

When asked if the gap in score just snowballed:

“A team that plays like that, if you don’t bring it, is going to be like that. They’re a run-and-gun team – like shooting threes, like to get out and run, get easy buckets in transition. We gave them everything that they are great at. Not to say the game was over in the first quarter but that’s a big deficit. It’s hard to come back with a team that has guys like James Harden and Dwight Howard.”

On Demarcus’ mood after the game:

“He’s still very upset, I mean he looks like it. But we’ve got to turn the page, got to have a short memory and try to forget about tonight.”

When asked if it was weird to be without Jimmer Fredette:

“It is, because first it was Tyler Honeycutt in my draft class and now Jimmer. He’s a great dude and a good basketball player. The thing about this business is it could happen to anybody. It sucks to see him go but good luck to him in the rest of his career and whatever team he ends up on.”

When asked if it was just a matter of not being a right fit:

“He’s going to have a good career. A guy that can shoot it like that, he’s going to have a good career.”

When asked if it was deflating when DeMarcus was ejected:

“A little bit – it’s tough on everybody. I don’t want to comment too much on it; try to have a short memory about it and worry about the Lakers.”