For three quarters the Rockets and Mavericks flailed around in the muck, tripping over one another as their best intentions turned to pulp. Each team shot an identical 27-of-69 from the field (39.1%) out of stalled sets and through squandered opportunities. Neither seemed able to orient itself. Dallas went searching on possession after possession but failed to consistently sort out its offense. Houston came into similar fits whether the ball worked through James Harden or another shot creator. Together they pushed through a game absent a discernible rhythm, desperate to find some edge in the chaos.
How fitting, then, that Josh Smith—as anarchic a player as you'll find in the NBA—derived some sense of order from it on Tuesday night. Throughout the fourth quarter the ball found its way to Smith, and from his hands came the cleanest plays of the night. Pick-and-rolls that sputtered finally found the right seams. Defensive rotations were countered by Smith (15 points, nine assists, eight rebounds) drawing a man in the lane and lobbing to an open Dwight Howard (28 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks). Where All-NBA talents like Harden and Dirk Nowitzki had been frustrated, something in Smith sprung meaningful, game-changing basketball from the heart of disorder. He thrived in it, and the Rockets did too, ultimately winning 111-90 on the strength of their fourth quarter.
[daily_cut.NBA]Smith came up with six assists and two points during a four-minute stretch in the final frame, during which Houston turned a two-point deficit into a 10-point lead. In a game like this, that kind of advantage proved insurmountable. Nowitzki (10 points, 3-14 FG, 13 rebounds) and Monta Ellis (24 points, 8-23 FG) scored as if they were drawing points from stone. They had neither the rhythm to shoot the Mavericks back into the lead nor the faculties to level out as a collective. For the first time all night, there were no answers.
It's genuinely surprising that it took so long for Dallas's disarray to pose a serious problem. Things fell out of sorts early through a rash of turnovers, magnified through team-wide shooting struggles and crystallized in the eventual benching of Rajon Rondo (four points and one assist in just 10 minutes). For months the Mavericks have tried to find ways around the clash between Rondo's individual talents (and glaring deficits) and the designs of Rick Carlisle's offense. On Tuesday that conflict was heightened by poor decisions, pitiful effort and misplaced testiness. Rondo ran Dallas to a loss before committing two personal fouls and a technical foul during a 35-second stretch at the start of the second half. Carlisle pulled Rondo with the guise of foul trouble and the bothersome point guard never returned.
Considering that Rondo is a needed playmaker and the Mavericks' best on-ball option against Harden (partcularly with Chandler Parsons sidelined), that should have spelled the end. Instead, Dallas uglied up the game as best it could and came to rely heavily on Al-Farouq Aminu, J.J. Barea and Raymond Felton to turn up winning plays. Each did their damnedest. Once the Mavericks came to the limits of what those role players could reasonably offer, Nowitzki's uncharacteristic inaccuracy and Ellis's insistence on firing from the perimeter became all the more painful.
Bedlam had offered Dallas an opportunity. As the lesser team in this series by regular season performance and active roster, the Mavericks needed to gum up the game for the Rockets as much as possible. Grime can be an equalizer, as was made clear through three quarters of bad basketball. From there things slipped, and not from an inability to check Harden or contain Houston's shooters, but out of the basic letdowns in pick-and-roll coverage that allowed Smith to pose as a master playmaker.
Howard, who was the game's best overall player on balance, made for a perfect Smith counterpoint. All but one of Smith's seven fourth-quarter assists were sealed on Howard alley-oops. That only happens by Howard making himself available and timing his release perfectly off of Tyson Chandler's move to provide help. In that, he turned Dallas's only plausible line of defense against it: With pressure applied at the top of the pick-and-roll, Smith moved into the paint to draw Chandler who had no choice but to leave Howard unattended. In a perfect world the Mavericks make a secondary rotation to get a body between Howard and the rim. Smith and Howard made that coordination almost impossible, particularly for a host of opponents either worn down by the game or in over their heads.
Houston's success in the fourth was such that Harden spent seven-and-a-half quiet minutes on the bench, returning to the game only as a precaution. The attention Harden draws had pushed the Rockets along to that point, yet he was hardly needed to finish. It was an odd game. Things went from uneven to erratic in a matter of a few early minutes, and it took until the fourth quarter before the game recovered. Yet the Rockets tried everything in their toolbox until they finally found safety in the two players perfect for the occasion: Smith, forever an agent of chaos, and Howard, a second-line answer that turned Dallas breakdowns to Houston breakthroughs. The series now relocates with the Rockets' 2-0 commanding lead and the Mavs running short on options. Nothing has ultimately been decided, but on Tuesday the Rockets managed to turn an inconclusive game into a critical result.