Friday night was a great chance to see whether the Houston Rockets are for real. Coming off of a tough loss in Denver to snap an eight-game winning streak, Houston went into Staples Center to face a nearly full-strength Los Angeles Clippers squad boasting two of the league's best players in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. On top of that, Houston was without much of its supporting cast, including Eric Gordon and Danuel House, leaving a substantial chunk of minutes for the likes of Austin Rivers, Ben McLeMore and Thabo Sefolosha.
The result was a bitterly contested, close game that ended with a 122-119 Clippers win despite a nearly flawless offensive performance from James Harden (much more on this later). The Beard finished with 37 points on 16 shots (he hoisted 41 just two games prior against the Timberwolves) and dished out 12 assists. In the end, however, Leonard played the hero, hitting what proved to be the game-winning jumper with 15 seconds left in the game.
Leonard finished with 24 points, while Lou Williams led the team with 26, all of which came in the second half. Here are a few things that stood out from a battle between two of the Western Conference's best teams.
Another extreme defense thwarted by Harden
We've seen teams employ all sorts of defensive schemes to try to stop Harden's scoring outbursts. Perhaps most famously, the Milwaukee Bucks had Harden's defenders actually play behind him last season to guard against his deadly step-back 3-pointer. As Harden himself was quick to point out -- it didn't exactly work.
The Clippers didn't go that far, but they were clearly doing everything they could to get the ball out of Harden's hands, sending high double-teams nearly every time he crossed half-court. The thinking of Doc Rivers and the Clippers staff was that if they could limit Harden's volume (he came in averaging nearly 25 field goal attempts per game and 14 3-pointers per game), they would force other players to beat them. The Clippers were successful in limiting Harden's attempts, but he was absolutely masterful in terms of picking and choosing when to look for his own shot (he also got to the free throw line 18 times), and when to give the ball up to his wide-open teammates. I mean, just look at the chasm of space Sefolosha has before making a 3-pointer in the third quarter.
Sefolosha is behind the 3-point line and the closest Clippers defenders are in the paint -- and this wasn't out of the ordinary on Friday night. Harden trusted his teammates and they, for the most part, delivered. McLemore scored 14 points on 4-for-9 3-point shooting, Sefolosha went 2-of-4 from deep, and PJ Tucker nailed a huge corner 3 late in the game. Unfortunately the Rockets just ran into a more talented team.
Clippers depth is unfair
Sure, Leonard hit the game-winner, but the Clippers also got huge 3-pointers down the stretch from George and Williams to put themselves in position to win the game. They looked dead in the water after a Tucker layup put the Rockets up by five with a minute left, but George and Williams hit two 3s in 21 seconds to give the Clippers the lead. Williams also saved them as they fell behind by as many as 11 in the third quarter, as he scored 14 points in just eight minutes to close the gap to four heading into the fourth, when Leonard began to take over.
This team isn't anywhere close to full strength, but they have three of the best closers in the NBA, and that was evident on Friday.
The Russ conundrum
Harden played a phenomenal game, as we've recognized, but he might be rethinking his pass to Russell Westbrook in the final seconds of the game. Westbrook missed a wide-open 3-pointer with eight seconds left, essentially losing the game for the Rockets, and he faced the inevitable repercussions from rival Patrick Beverley on the opposite sideline.
Westbrook actually had one of his best games of the season, pushing the ball in transition and hitting some of his patented mid-range fadeaways, but this is the problem with having him on this team. Harden is supposed to pass out of the double team there. Westbrook is supposed to shoot that shot -- it's a wide-open 3-pointer. But, Westbrook finished the game 1-for-7 from beyond the arc and is shooting about 20 percent from deep this season. Might he have been better off driving to the rim? Perhaps. But that's not how the Rockets play. It didn't work out this time, but there's still a lot of time for Houston to figure it out. Overall the Rockets were pretty impressive despite the loss.