Both the Heat and Rockets entered Sunday's game as the losers of consecutive games and played accordingly. The energy level was high and the hustle evident, though neither team was necessarily at its sharpest throughout. Still, the looming losing streak helped give a mid-March game some tangible stakes. Dwight Howard (21 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) and James Harden (30 points, 7-16 FG) attacked offensively in a manner befitting these playoff environs. Dwyane Wade (24 points, seven assists) was dialed in from opening tip, and along with Chris Bosh (18 points, eight rebounds), helped fuel the Heat while LeBron James (24 points, five rebounds, five assists, five turnovers) worked out the kinks.
In all, both clubs were relatively balanced. Though a 21-7 push to close the fourth quarter helped Miami wrap up a needed 113-104 win, sending Houston into its first three-game losing streak of the season.
• Houston's offense sputtered out in crunch time. What happens last may not matter most, but in this case it helped separate two teams attempting to claw their way out of their respective losing streaks. It was a rather fine line that divided these two teams in their Sunday matinee, with the verdict ultimately rendered through the Rockets' inability to create much of anything offensively in the final stages of the game. This wasn't an issue for the final few possessions alone; over the last six minutes of the fourth quarter, Houston had as many made field goals (two) as turnovers.
Far too many possessions were spent beyond the arc in their entirety, as James Harden, Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin forced up desperate perimeter jumpers without so much as probing the lane. This is where the typically fluid and free-flowing Rockets offense goes to die. They can thrive in transition and half-court situations alike, provided that they maintain the same basic drive-and-kick rhythms throughout. But when the game naturally tightens up, so, too, do Houston's tendencies. The ball sticks in Harden's hands or Lin's or Dwight Howard's until it's far too late to create much through ball movement, forcing the Rockets to rely on tough shots in the face of heightened defensive pressure.
They can do better, and in select situations this season have done so. But this is hardly the first time that this particular elite offense has ground itself to dust despite having some of the best pick-and-roll players in the league and a cast of capable passers and shooters surrounding them. Houston is very much a flow team, and when that flow is disrupted by defensive pressure or the Rockets' own trepidation, the usual result is much like their final six minutes of action on Sunday. That doesn't bode terribly well for Houston's chances of achieving postseason buoyancy, but things needn't be so stiff and so stilted for a team capable of more even shot creation.
• LeBron James and Dwyane Wade locked into efficient balance. No team in the league much relishes the terror of defending James and Wade in tandem, but Houston is uniquely ill-equipped in that effort relative to the NBA's other contenders. There's just no designated defensive stalwart on the roster to throw in the way of that All-NBA talent. Chandler Parsons works hard and means well, though -- like so many other defenders -- lacks the court awareness to keep tabs on James. Wade, on the other hand, generally draws Harden in coverage as Rockets coach Kevin McHale crosses his fingers and hopes to avoid disaster.
It's an underwhelming arrangement to address a glaring matchup problem, and in that requires that Houston make concessions elsewhere on the floor. Howard hangs in the lane even longer than he would otherwise. Switching becomes something of a necessity, as that approach allows the Rockets to impede James and Wade's progress toward the rim even when Parsons or Harden is delayed by a pick. The Rockets cut corners and cheat off other assignments as necessary to make things as tough for Miami's leading creators as possible, an approach which in this case kept the game close enough to give Houston a legitimate chance.
But James and Wade have become far too good at making the most of any kind of limitation. On Sunday, both did a terrific job of reading the floor to see what was available, which then allowed both stars to pursue the most efficient ends possible. It should be noted that James was not his best self. His ball-handling was unusually sloppy, which then made it all the more difficult for him to slice his way to the rim against an attentive team defense. But even that didn't stop the reigning MVP from putting up a tidy 24 points, a total matched by Wade. Those 48 points between them came on just 32 attempts from the field -- modest usage from players who otherwise can trend toward ball dominance.
• Ray Allen went against the grain of his underwhelming season to drop a high-scoring performance. This hasn't exactly been a banner year for Allen, who has seen his shooting window narrow ever so slightly with his advancing age. He's still been potent in spots for the Heat, though Friday's game against the Nuggets marked the first occasion all season that Allen had topped 20 points in a game.completely