To anyone who doubted the potential quality of basketball within the bubble, I submit Friday's game between the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets as evidence that the NBA won't miss a beat. In a thrilling overtime bout that featured a double-digit fourth quarter comeback, the Rockets stunned the Mavericks 153-149. The win will prove critical in the standings, as the Rockets now lead the Mavericks by 2.5 games with only seven to play. In all likelihood, that condemns Dallas to a first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook were the drivers behind the comeback for Houston. The duo combined for 80 points, 20 rebounds and 16 assists. Danuel House chipped in six 3-pointers as well to support them, and despite their horrible defense, they managed to overcome a Dallas team that made 21 3-pointers and got at least 24 points from four separate players (Kristaps Porzingis, Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke).
Both of these teams have a ways to go in terms of conditioning. This track meet proved that. But on only the second day of the bubble, we got what was potentially the game of the year. Here are the main takeaways from Houston's victory.
Every flaw we assumed the Rockets had still stands
The Rockets are the most intentionally flawed championship contender in NBA history. They are fully aware of all of the things that they can't do, and while Friday proved they are capable of winning in spite of them, they're still there.
They lost the rebounding battle 55-43, and times it looked much worse. The Mavericks grabbed 13 offensive rebounds. Houston isn't good enough defensively to give away that many second-chance opportunities. Kristaps Porzingis, and to a lesser extent Boban Marjanovic, both shot over the smaller Rockets with ease. There is no universe in which allowing 149 points is sustainable or acceptable.
Again, this was by design. The Rockets are betting that their overwhelming shooting advantage and ability to switch comfortably on defense against the most valuable opposing shots is enough to overcome those deficits. But they nearly weren't on Friday. The Rockets don't need to rebound like the Bucks to win the championship, but there is still improvement necessary if they hope to win the championship.
James Harden looked faster
As a driver, Harden thrives primarily based off of patience and deceleration. Even without being particularly fast, he starts and stops and changes directions so fluidly that it hardly matters. But on Friday, Harden looked faster than he had before the season shut down. Perhaps four months of rest did him some good. Given the enormous offensive load he carries, this hiatus might have done him some good. Combining the sort of speed we glimpsed against the Mavericks with his impeccable skill creates an unstoppable scorer.
Dallas still isn't ready for primetime
The Mavericks have the most efficient offense in NBA history, the third-best net rating in the Western Conference and two young stars. Yet they're still in seventh-place in the standings. Why? They struggle in clutch settings. They've now lost 17 games by five points or less and have been outscored by an insane 16.1 points per 100 possessions in the clutch this season. They're young. They're learning. Their roster is deep rather than top-heavy. To some extent, clutch struggles were inevitable. But the Mavericks look the part of a contender in most regards. Their one flaw has been fourth quarter performance, and that sustained in this game.