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Harden Lifts Rockets Over Defenseless Dallas

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 113-105 win over Dallas

HOUSTON - Instant analysis and observations from Houston’s 113-105 win over Dallas Friday night at Toyota Center:

Tonight’s game marks the beginning of a grueling four-games-in-five nights stretch for the Rockets, with the club heading to Salt Lake City upon the conclusion of this evening’s contest before then embarking to Los Angeles and Portland for games against the Clippers and Blazers on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

Even coming as it does at the outset of the season, that trip is a tough test for any team, especially one that finds itself battling some bumps and bruises as the Rockets currently do coming on the heels of their season opener against the Bobcats. James Harden (sore back, wrist) is playing tonight, but this morning’s news that Patrick Beverley will miss the next 10-14 days with a partial tear of a muscle in his mid-section means we’ll need to keep an especially close eye on the point guard matchups set to take place in his absence. Jose Calderon’s beguiling mix of shot-making and craftiness can test even the stoutest of defenses and the all-world Chris Paul and up-and-coming Damian Lillard can most definitely do the same. It will be fascinating to see how Houston handles these players without the services of their bulldog that goes by the name of Beverley.

Harden goes for 34.jpg- The Rockets’ supersized lineup lasted a whopping 51 seconds tonight as Omer Asik was forced to take an early seat after picking up two quick fouls. That may very well have been a blessing in disguise for Houston. The Rockets shredded Dallas with their small-ball lineups during the two clubs’ preseason meeting, so when Asik’s early foul trouble prompted the insertion of Omri Casspi it should hardly come as a surprise that Houston’s offense subsequently began soaring into the stratosphere.

I’ve mentioned it in this space before but it bears repeating: the Rockets’ most potent lineups this year are likely to feature Dwight Howard in the middle and James Harden on the perimeter with a cadre of shooters providing the spacing necessary to allow those two to wreak havoc and destruction upon opposing defenses. Sure enough, that’s precisely what transpired during a first quarter that saw Houston race out to a 38-22 lead. It was quite the reversal from what we saw Wednesday night during the Rockets’ home opener as Houston relentlessly pushed the pace and forced turnovers while feasting on a steady diet of layups, dunks and wide-open 3s.

- It certainly didn’t hurt that Dallas was dealing with foul trouble of its own as Samuel Dalembert played little more than four first quarter minutes after picking up a pair of fouls as well. That forced the Mavs to put the hopelessly undersized DeJaun Blair on Dwight Howard, the result of which was exactly what you’d expect: Goliath stomped all over David (err, DeJuan), devouring 9 rebounds in the period, five of which came on the offensive glass.

- One other first quarter observation: Aaron Brooks has clearly been watching Patrick Beverley and taking notes. That’s the only conclusion I can reach after watching the diminutive Houston point guard fly in after a missed Asik free throw and execute a perfect – and Beverley-esque – back-tap to give his club an extra possession (the result of which was an Asik slam).

- How good were the Rockets for the first 20 minutes of the first half? Let’s put it this way: If Michelangelo had specialized in the creation of basketball shot charts, he probably would have crafted something very similar to the one Houston produced en route to building a 22-point lead. Outside of one 15-foot Casspi jumper in the first quarter, virtually every Rockets bucket was a layup, dunk or 3. For hoops nerds, it was nothing short of a work of art.

- Speaking of basketball geekery, NBA.com released another heaping helping of analytical goodies today by rolling out its SportVU data today. The sample sizes are obviously way too small right now to draw any meaningful conclusions, but here’s something to keep an eye on: Heading into today’s games, James Harden and Jeremy Lin were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the NBA in points per game driving to the basket. Don’t expect them to drop much, if any, in those rankings after tonight’s game given the fact both players successfully exploited the soft underbelly of Dallas’ interior D on multiple occasions tonight.

- Admittedly, it wasn’t all roses and rainbows for the Rockets tonight. The turnover bug bit them in a big way once again and, sometime around the four-minute mark of the second quarter all the way through to about the same point of the third period, Houston’s offense suffered through a particularly ugly stretch. Some of that was due to the Mavs’ zone defense and some was due to the success Dallas had with its Hack-a-Howard strategy, but most of Houston’s issues just came down to a sloppiness, stickiness and overall lack of execution that had obviously been dormant during the period when the Rockets were rolling and on their way to a 22-point lead. The end result: Dallas was able to climb to within six at one point until …

- James Harden took over once and for all. With his team in need of a spark, Harden instead provided a thunderbolt, scoring 13 points – and personally sending Dirk Nowitzki to a permanent spot on the bench with six fouls thanks to a pair of and-1s – during the decisive eight-minute stretch that effectively ended the suspense once and for all. Harden’s final line: 34 points on 11-of-17 shooting (including a 4-of-8 mark from beyond the arc) to go along with four rebounds and three assists. After the game I will immediately attempt to throw out my back and fall on my wrist to see if it results in similarly eye-popping productivity.

- Weird night for Omer Asik. One of the (many) amazing things about Asik’s year last season was the fact that he played far more minutes than he ever had before while so frequently avoiding foul trouble. Tonight it plagued him throughout, however, limiting him to just 16 minutes of playing time. He sure as heck made the most of those minutes, though, collecting 12 rebounds and 6 points during that time. 

- And, hey, as far as I’m concerned, Asik can do no wrong – not after I noticed the astonishing amount of swag he displays in the Rockets' intro video. I didn’t know you had it in you, Omer.

- I'm choosing to ignore the Jae Crowder show that made this game at least mildly interesting when he hit five 3s during garbage time to bring the Mavs within 5 in the final minute. The NBA is weird. Crazy things happen. But in the grand scheme of things, that sequence of events was largely irrelevant. Sorry, Jae.

See you tomorrow night from Salt Lake City, folks.

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN MCHALE

(On the game play) “We had parts in the first half where we were really rolling. Then, they (Mavericks) went to zone and we stood around too much. We just got real complacent to shoot 3's. We walked it up, and we have to keep pushing and attacking. When we push and attack, we're way better. They had 37 fouls. It just got to be kind of a funky game after a while. There was no flow. The free throws, the hacking thing, but for a while there, we played the way we've been playing all season. We moved the ball early and really got after it. I tell you that 38 point first quarter was fun to watch and that's how we have to play.”

(On the Mavericks hacking Dwight Howard) “He's had it done to him before. I'm sure that (other teams) will do it again. He just has to step up. He'll make his free throws. He'll shoot better as the year goes on.”

(On hacking having an impact on game play) “It slowed the whole thing and there was no rhythm in the game. We play better when we have rhythm and get going. It was just a non rhythmic game completely.”

(On aggressiveness towards the defensive zone) “Everybody's got to be more aggressive. We came down and for some reason we started standing. We hadn't been zoned a lot. We've worked on it in practice a little bit but we started standing and you can't do that. We have to move and create and not just settle for the firs three pointer that comes along which I thought we did a few times. You've just got to move and keep attacking. We'll get better at that. When we did it right, we got some good open looks. We'll get better at that. We're a good shooting team. Usually good shooting teams, it (the zone) doesn't bother them too much.”

(On strategy against hacking tactic ) “It depends on who's guarding him (Dwight Howard). They'll (opposing team) will put a guy on him and they'll want to burn fouls. Since Dirk (Nowitzki) was guarding him, I if we just push, then they won't run back. Your natural instinct is to run back. We've just got to push. If we do run it back and throw it, he'll (Dwight Howard) score a lay up. We've just got to keep playing through this too.”

(On getting to the foul line) “When we are attacking, we get a lot of pressure at the rim. When James(Harden) is playing down hill, when Jeremy (Lin) is playing down hill, when Omer (Asik) is rolling hard, and when Dwight (Howard) is rolling hard, it's hard not to foul. I think this team will get fouled a lot over the course of the year.”

OMRI CASSPI

(On how good it feels to get the win) “It feels good. I feel like we had control pretty much the whole game. They tried different things. They went zone on us. They tried to foul Dwight (Howard) a few times but we kept our composure and we got stops. We got the work done and that's the most important thing.”

(On how much it was a distraction when the Mavericks started to foul Dwight Howard) “It's a part of the game. They tried to do things and they couldn't stop us in their regular defense. They tried to come up with different strategies to stop us. Coach McHale told us to keep playing through our plays, run through them, and get open shots. We got great shots and they started fouling Dwight (Howard). We have 100% confidence in Dwight and he knows it, so he was knocking them down.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On his play in the third quarter) “I just tried to attack. I think we were stagnant. They went to their zone and it kind of slowed us up a little bit. So we had to get the ball moving, and they went to that hack-a-Howard. It kind of slowed our momentum up, so I had to find a way to pick us up.”

(On they maintain confidence when teams go to “Hack-a-Howard”) “We'll practice it, try not to get stagnant. That's what they want to do, slow us up when they go into zone. We just have to keep the ball moving and keep attacking them, and space and just get open shots.”

(On his play) “Like I said, I just want to be aggressive, be aggressive. I want to get out in transition before the zone can get set up. Use open breaks to find one of my teammates and it was a good home win for us. Now, it's time for us to test our game on the road.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On the Rockets’ play in the first half): “We rebounded the ball. We pushed it and guys got easy baskets. That is what we thrive off of. When we do that, it makes it tough for teams. We struggled a little bit in the half-court offense, but in the open court, that is when we are at our best.”

(On the play of James Harden in the third quarter): “In the third quarter, James just took over. He got to the basket, He hit threes, and that’s what we want him to do. I was very excited watching it and I was happy that he came back after the first game and he was a better player.”

(On play offensively): I was just trying to get into a little rhythm. It’s tough. I really didn’t get a chance to get into the flow of the game because of the zone. And, also the free throw situation. That’s what their coach wanted. I want to continue to practice those two things. It’s something that I’ve been working hard on. I can’t get down when I miss some shots. I just have t keep practicing.”

JEREMY LIN

(On the Rockets offense in the first half): “I love the way we played in the first half. We got stops, We played great defense and usually when we play great defense, our offense is a lot easier and a lot more simpler. We got out and ran. We need to make sure we continue to do that and not let up in the second half.”

(On the defensive tactics by Dallas): “To be honest, I think Coach Carlisle did everything he could to keep them in the game. He did a great job of fouling, the zone, letting guys play in foul trouble and different things like that. For us,  think we have to make sure that we don’t allow other people’s adjustments to shape the way that we play. I think we need to put our foot down in terms of how we need to play.”

DALLAS MAVERICKS HEAD COACH RICK CARLISLE

(On the game)   “We have to play better at the start of the game. Our play in the first quarter put us in such a hole that we could never get back over the hump and every minute counts in an NBA Game. When you fall down double digits in the first quarter, you are going to be digging out of a hole the entire night and this is too good of a team to do that against. Shot making will come and go in this league, but the consistency has to be defensively and staying with the system and we had too many breakdowns defensively. This team is too skilled, too big, and they take advantage of those kinds of mistakes.”

(On how much James Harden hurt them): “A lot. Our transition defense was not good and he got angles, as he’s very good at doing, and got to the free throw line and hit timely threes. He did a little bit of everything.”

DIRK NOWITZKI

(On the game)   “We kept plugging, but obviously it was a brutal start to the game and we really didn’t get any stops and then finally got a little traction there and made it a six point game. I thought the hack-a-Howard actually broke the rythem a little bit and the zone jumped the game up a little bit, but every time we were right there, we just couldn’t find the basket. We shot 38% on the road and its tough to win the game but I felt we got good looks when we needed them, but just couldn’t get over the hump”

(On James Harden): James was fantastic. He made some deep threes and that opened up his driving lanes. He was phenomenal tonight.”

JAE CROWDER

(On bench play and his three point shooting) “I felt like early in the game we tried to bring energy and we were flat early in the game and Houston came out running. Our whole thing on the bench is to come out with a lot of energy. Me, I just didn’t want to lay down and I felt since we have to play these guys again to just put a little fear in there head and there heart and make them think about how the game ended. It shocked us the way they came out and it makes us feel like we have some work to do. You just work to gain confidence and as much time as I put in the gym to keep shooting and keep working on my game, that builds my confidence so when I get in the game I make it seem like I’m just in the gym by myself. I work for confidence and that’s what’s going on.”

VINCE CARTER

(On teams play) “We had to play catch up and that makes it very tough. We just have to play better in the first quarter, defensively. offensively we got the shots we wanted, we just didn’t make them. We have to figure it out. Just like last year, but once we figured it out, we got a lot better. I think we are very capable and we’ll figure it out.”

NOTES

Houston registered another sellout crowd of 18,142, marking a second straight sellout at Toyota Center.

The Rockets recorded a 113-105 win over the Mavericks tonight, giving Houston a 2-0 start for a second consecutive season.

Houston pulled down another 51 boards tonight. Going back to the last three preseason outings, the Rockets have now posted 50-plus rebounds in five straight games.

The Rockets limited the Mavericks to 38-of-100 (.380) from the field tonight. Houston also held the Bobcats to 83 points on 33-of-90 (.367) shooting in the prior game vs. Charlotte (10/30/13).

Houston was 11-of-29 (.379) from beyond the arc tonight. The Rockets have now made 10-plus 3-pointers in each of the last six regular season meetings with the Mavericks (4/18/12-11/1/13).

The Rockets racked up 61 points on 23-of-43 shooting (.535) in the first half tonight. In 2012-13, Houston recorded 30 60-point halves, which included three 70-point halves.

James Harden finished with a game-high 34 points (11-17 FG, 4-8 3FG, 8-9 FT) and four steals tonight. Last season vs. Dallas (12/8/12), Harden had 39 points (10-17 FG, 4-9 3FG, 15-16 FT) and nine assists.

Dwight Howard posted 13 points (4-10 FG), 16 rebounds and one blocked tonight. Howard posted a career-high-tying 26 boards in his Rockets debut vs. Charlotte (10/30/10).

Jeremy Lin moved back into the staring lineup tonight and went for 14 points (4-9 FG, 6-7 FT), a team-high four assists and three steals. Houston’s starting backcourt combined for 48 points and seven thefts.

Omer Asik, who grabbed 14 rebounds vs. Charlotte (10/30/13), had another 12 boards tonight.

Omri Casspi recorded 12 points (4-8 FG) on 3-of-3 shooting from beyond the arc tonight, while Gal Mekel registered 11 points (5-7 FG) and a team-high six assists. Casspi and Mekel are the only two Israeli-born players in the NBA.

Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks in scoring with 22 points (6-15 FG), adding four boards and two assists tonight. Nowitzki was coming off a 24-point, five-assist outing in the season opener vs. Atlanta (10/30/10).

Monta Ellis had 20 points (7-19 FG, 5-64 FT) and three steals tonight. Ellis hit a 3-pointer as time expired to lift Milwaukee to the victory last season against the Rockets at Houston (2/27/13), as the Bucks came back from a 17-point, first-quarter deficit to win 110-107.

DeJuan Blair added an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double off the bench tonight.