Austin Rivers provided the night’s comic relief with 1:31 left to play by fervently gesturing toward referee Tony Brothers to whistle his father Doc Rivers for a technical foul.
When officials eventually ejected the LA Clippers' coach, Rivers strolled toward the bench smiling.
But what’s not a laughing matter in the wake of Houston rolling to its season’s best fifth-straight win Wednesday over the LA Clippers is the upcoming stretch rife with playoff-caliber teams and high-level talent awaiting an injury-depleted Rockets squad working through issues on defense.
“This is when the season gets fun,” said James Harden, who led Houston with 47 points in the 102-93 win. He finished his fifth outing with 40-plus points and five assists or more within the first 11 games of the season, setting an NBA record. “Everything isn’t going to be just smooth, and guys [are] going to be injured. So now we’ve got to step up.”
Of Houston’s next 11 opponents, six advanced to the playoffs last season, while the other five (Minnesota, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta, and Phoenix) currently rank in the top eight of their respective conferences.
Couple the stiff competition with Houston’s shaky roster situation.
The Rockets lost Gerald Green to a broken foot before the season even started, and the team announced Tuesday that guard Eric Gordon will be out approximately six weeks after undergoing knee surgery. Attempting to draw a charge the night before in a win at New Orleans, Danuel House Jr. suffered a lower back bruise that forced him out of Wednesday’s win over the Clippers.
Then, on a night in which Clint Capela became the first Rocket since Moses Malone to post 20 rebounds for the third consecutive game, the 25-year-old took a vicious blow to the side of the head from JaMychal Green in the fourth quarter that knocked him out of the contest. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said the club’s medical staff will examine Capela, and “then we’ll know more later.”
We’ll soon know more about the title-chasing Rockets during this 12-game stretch, too, which began with a victory over the Clippers that provided a few clues. Most notably, how the Harden and Russell Westbrook dynamic is playing out, especially in crunch time.
Westbrook struggled to find his shot most of the night, but with the stakes raised highest, he combined with Harden to score 24 of the Rockets’ 28 points in the fourth quarter. Offensively, they’ve proven to be dynamic. Defensively, it's been questionable.
Houston has often mated a top-five offense with a mediocre defense. The Rockets entered Wednesday’s game ranked 20th defensively and third on offense. In fact, it’s somewhat reminiscent of last season, when Houston ranked 25th in defensive efficiency before the All-Star break, only to rev up the tenacity on that end to finish No. 2 in that area after the break.
Houston’s former associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik resided over the defensive resurgence last season, beginning in November after team owner Tilman Fertitta coaxed him out of retirement. But when Bzdelik’s contract expired in May, the Rockets opted against bringing him back.
Early on this season, it appeared his absence would be an issue yet again. The Rockets struggled defending opponents throughout the season's first few games and simply looked lost at times, but they've turned things around as of late. During the five-game win streak, Houston has performed as the No. 1 defense in the NBA.
The performance against the Clippers, who rank second defensively, was a perfect illustration. The 93 points scored by LA represented a Clippers season-low, not to mention an opponent season-low for Houston. In fact, the Rockets have limited opponents to fewer than 100 points in two of their last three outings after failing to accomplish the feat in any of their first eight games.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction and that’s all we can worry about,” Westbrook said.
With the game tight Wednesday night in the fourth quarter, the Clippers wilted while the Rockets flourished.
“It showed we’re taking a step in that area,” forward P.J. Tucker said. “I think there are some games we’ve lost, especially at the end of the game [by] losing focus, not doing little things. But we came together and really grew. I think we really grew tonight a little bit.”
Going back to last season, Houston owns a record of 17-2 when it holds opponents to fewer than 100 points.
“It’s better,” D’Antoni said of the defense. “I think we’re getting a bit more in shape. Tyson [Chandler] and Clint are guarding the basket better. Without Eric [Gordon] ... Eric is one of our better defenders and House is one of our better defenders, but we didn’t have them. So, considering that, it was good. It has to be good because [the Clippers] are good. With Paul George coming back, they’re going to be even better. So, we have to be better.”
Houston can expect to see the Clippers again soon, as it faces them on Nov. 22 in the third road game of the upcoming 11-game stretch. The Rockets start with Indiana at home on Friday, before heading to Minnesota the next day and hosting the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday. The Rockets then play back-to-back road games at Denver and the Clippers before coming back to host Dallas, Miami and Atlanta. Houston closes the upcoming stretch with back-to-back road games at San Antonio and Toronto, before finishing at home against the upstart Phoenix Suns.
Throughout the stretch, the Rockets plan to take somewhat of a break for Thanksgiving, as it will have a three-day gap between games.
Rivers, meanwhile, is already bracing for the dinner-table awkwardness he might experience with his father.
“I doubt we’ll go to dinner or anything like that,” Rivers said. “He actually is sensitive about stuff like that. So, we’ll see what happens. It was a really good moment though. I’m not going to lie to you, I really did enjoy that.”
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