Takeaways from the Rockets’ 153-149 overtime win Friday against the Dallas Mavericks in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.:
After 4½ months, the Rockets — with more than a little help from the Mavericks — made the restart worth the wait.
Well, no one would have chosen to have the season interrupted for so long, especially given the reasons. But the restart opener was as far removed from television H-O-R-S-E competitions as the NBA could get.
The Mavericks brought the best offense in NBA history into the restart. The Rockets had the No. 2 offense this season. Both were spectacular.
The Rockets eventually repaired their defense. The Mavs seemed to tire. Down seven in the final minute, the Rockets did enough to force overtime where they swept to their first win since March 10.
“I think it’s huge for us,” Rockets guard Russell Westbrook said. “It shows we have fight. It shows that we can close games, which is important, especially when it comes down to the playoffs.”
The win was important as a place to start, a place to build in the restart. It also was already valuable in the standings. Stealing the win on Friday gives the Rockets a 2½-game lead on the seventh-seeded Mavericks with the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Rockets moved to fifth in the West, but the primary goal is to not fall to seventh. With a game on Sunday against the Bucks, and the Lakers looming after a game against the reloaded Blazers, a win on Friday seems even more valuable.
As with so many of the games in the first two days of the restart, it was also wildly entertaining.
1. For all that is said about James Harden, attention is rarely sent to the quality that his prodigious offensive talent overshadows.
Harden is incredibly tough. The first game of the restart demonstrated that — and also why that is so easy to miss.
Harden was predictably the guy who would put up 49 points in the first game after a 4½-month layoff. When he had 23 in the first quarter, he moved past Calvin Murphy to second in franchise history in scoring, behind only Hakeem Olajuwon.
He will be just the eighth player to lead the league in scoring in three consecutive seasons, the only one to do it after leading the league in assists. He is on pace to be the first player to average at least 34 points in consecutive seasons since Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and 1987-88.
“Pound for pound, Harden is one of the best scorers in the history of basketball, up there with all the greats,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “You look at the number of points he’s averaging, it’s breathtaking what he’s done over the past couple of years.”
It is easy to forget now, however, that early in the game, Harden seemed to turn his ankle. He looked to be in pain. He walked to the side of the court and tightened his laces. Never for a moment did it seem that he would leave the game.
That happens all the time with him. It is often said that he hates to miss a game or sit out a practice (though he might want to take it easy in the restart practices for a while and especially Saturday). But he also frequently plays through pain.
His offensive talents often obscure the toughness it takes to play his way, to so often crash into bodies (he also drew a painful charge on Friday) and be bounced around the court. On Friday, he almost seemed to like it that way. His 49 points made that easy to miss, but much of that only came after a few minutes limping around and never considering leaving the game.
2. Statistics show the Mavericks have the best offensive team in NBA history. The Rockets will not argue, and not just because they famously believe in statistics.
Since Dallas coach Rick Carlisle shifted Kristaps Porzingis to center and tweaked his starting lineup to keep Luka Doncic surrounded by shooters, the Mavericks offer defenses nothing but terrible choices. Just as Porzingis said defending the Rockets is completely different from any other team because of James Harden, defending the Mavericks is a similar nightmare.
The Rockets, however, got their first test of the defensive principles they had spent training camp 2.0 trying to drive home and seemed to panic.
They stopped switching. Or some players switched and others didn’t. There was confusion. There were 85 Dallas points by halftime, 119 through three quarters. There was obvious frustration.
But as much as a team can show with perseverance, and the Rockets needed plenty of that, it can be more telling when it can make corrections. The Rockets repaired their defense. They corrected their mistakes.
The Mavericks seemed to tire, which helped. Some of the Dallas 3s that had floored the Rockets early — the old Mike Tyson “Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the mouth” thing — began missing.
The Rockets held the Mavericks to 20 fourth-quarter points, but more than that, they showed that their defensive plan could work if they actually play it.
“It shows what we’re capable of,” Westbrook said. “We just have to put it together start to finish. But we got time to do that. We’re moving in the right direction.”
The teams that make it through the postseason are the ones that know who they are and how they must play, and then stick with that no matter how hard they are hit. That is usually thought of as an offensive requirement. The Rockets have that down. Friday’s struggles and then turnaround could be valuable to drive home that message on the defensive end.
3. Mike D’Antoni spoke of “heart.” Harden said it was “will.” In many ways, the Rockets finished strong because of conditioning.
A team that scrimmages in practices as much as the Rockets looked stronger at the end, even as both teams seemed to have just about punched themselves out.
“It’s legs, conditioning and the will to win,” Harden said. “At practice, we get after it.”
That was always thought to be a key to success in the restart season. The teams that worked hard in the hiatus, allowing it to work at the restart training camp rather than carefully improve conditioning, had a chance to have an advantage. Even with the late arrivals of Harden and Westbrook, with Westbrook stuck at home unable to do much to work out for 19 days, the Rockets seemed ready to finish a game with 302 combined points.
D’Antoni did not want to play his regulars quite that much. He was going to play only eight players with Eric Gordon out, but would increase the playing time for Ben McLemore, Jeff Green and the indefatigable Austin Rivers enough to keep starters to mid- to upper-30s, Westbrook to a few minutes less.
Then McLemore fouled out in just 14 minutes. The game went to overtime, adding five minutes to each starter. Westbrook and Harden ended up playing 44 minutes. Harden had said he was winded in the second scrimmage. Westbrook said he is still working his way back to full strength.
Yet, that they were able to finish as they did while playing catch-up not just in the game but in their restart training showed a good deal about what kind of work they had put in before things went sideways on their plans.
There will be time in the eight seeding games to rest for the postseason. The Rockets have consistently said that the goal is to be at their best when they reach the playoffs, rather than to improve their playoff positioning. As long as they avoid a fall to seventh and a then-likely first-round matchup against the Clippers, there is little to gain by moving up a spot or two.
They do have to play their way to a level to win in the postseason. As Harden and Westbrook combined for 80 points, 16 assists and 20 rebounds, they seemed to take a significant step in that direction.