Houston Rockets gain confidence with statement win over Cleveland Cavaliers

Fran Blinebury

HOUSTON — Just one game, said Patrick Beverley.

One game when he was sticking his nose and annoying face right into the bulging muscles and sharp elbows of LeBron James. One game when he practically used an arm bar to get the ball away from Kyrie Irving along the sidelines.

Just one game, said Trevor Ariza.

One game when he kept running out on shooters, running down rebounds and took a Tristan Thompson finger to the left eye that sent him to free throw line barely able to see the basket.

Just one game, said James Harden.

One game when he did the usual triple-double dance, getting to the hoop, slinging in 3-pointers and setting up teammates in the clutch to bring them back for a 117-112 win over the Cavs.

Just one game that says the try-to-shoot-the-lights-out Rockets are going to be a tough out and not just a novelty in just over a month when the playoffs begin.

The Warriors minus Kevin Durant are so worn out physically and emotionally that they need to take entire games off to get rejuvenated at a day spa. Mani-pedi and back rubs all around.

The Spurs are waiting for their top dog Kawhi Leonard to be released from the NBA concussion protocol, LaMarcus Aldridge to solve the mystery of a recurring heart arrhythmia and aging Tony Parker to either get over a nagging back problem or learn to dribble while holding a cane.

The Rockets simply keep rolling, having never lost more than two games in a row at any point this season, and keeping on a virtual vise grip hold of the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference standings with a door that could be cracking open wider in front of them. With the full resume, they didn’t exactly need a signature win to stake a claim to legitimacy in the 2017 title race. But taking down the defending champions after spotting them a 14-point lead doesn’t hurt.

“We’ve proven it, but it’s been a while,” Harden said. “We let one go in San Antonio (Monday). So tonight was a big game for us. We got to ride this momentum. We’re in a good place right now and we’re for each other. Just ride this momentum into the postseason.”

The ride has been so much more enjoyable precisely because they are in that good place and playing for each other.

This time last year the Rockets were more dysfunctional than a TV soap opera family, bogged down in the passive-aggressive feud between Harden and Dwight Howard. Their teammates didn’t have to choose sides in the fight as much as try not to step in the debilitating radioactive goo. Twelve months later they are registering on the Geiger Counter because they are that lethal with the off-the-charts 3-ball attack and a sense of harmony.

Those Rockets from last season would not have gotten up off the floor when the Cavs hit them in the face and built a double-digit lead in the second quarter. These Rockets stuck with their game plan of switching everything on defense and daring the Cleveland shooters to keep beating them.

“I don’t remember last season,” Ariza said with a grin.

“We just tried to simplify it for them,” said coach Mike D’Antoni.

It was D’Antoni who a few weeks back during a difficult stretch questioned the heart of his team. And there it was Sunday night, pumping strong out on the operating table in chasing down every loose ball and every tough offensive rebound coming down the stretch.

“They’ve always had it,” D’Antoni said. “That’s just me ranting and raving. It makes no sense. Sometimes I say things and after I think, ‘Are you kidding me?’ If was a player, I’d be looking like, ‘Oh boy, here he goes again!’ You don’t win like we have in back-to-backs and in different things and (then) it was a case of ‘I didn’t care that day.’ It’s just coach-speak.”

It’s also knee-jerk overreaction to read too much into one game in the long regular season.

“We ain’t won no championship,” Beverley said. “They ain’t holding a parade.”

Contenders are forged over the long haul, constructed piece by piece, gaining familiarity, trust and confidence along the way.

But the meaningful win at San Antonio came way back on Nov. 9. The double-overtime win at Golden State was on Dec. 1. So this was an overdue statement to make.

They are just one-half game — a Rockets win or a Trail Blazers loss — from clinching their spot in the playoffs. What will soon be official got a validating lift.

“They can feel it,” D’Antoni said. “They know how big a game it was to do this. It gives us a little boost of confidence. You don’t have to say anything to them. They know.”

Now so does everyone else.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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