Austin Rivers Leads Rockets Past Kings With Career-High 41 Points
The Rockets have established a reputation as a bit of Jekyll and Hyde team in recent years, and that hasn't subsided in 2019-20.
Houston sports the NBA's best winning percentage against teams over. 500 this year, and its already registered victories over the Lakers and Bucks in the NBA bubble. But James Harden and Co. have faced some serious lulls against the dregs of the league. The Rockets have lost 14 games to teams under .500, including defeats against the Knicks, Pistons and Hornets. Sunday night appeared to be trending in a similar direction.
The Rockets limped out of the gate in Sunday's 129-112 win over the Kings. They committed five first-quarter turnovers, and their transition defense was similarly sluggish as they trailed 36-23. Without Russell Westbrook in the lineup, Houston was seriously lacking energy in the opening minutes. But the slow start faded with more than enough time.
Houston seized a five-point halftime lead after blitzing Sacramento in the second quarter, and the game became a runaway following another dominant period after halftime. The Rockets are now 4–1 in the NBA bubble. They've beaten two No. 1 seeds in their last five games. It's been smooth sailing in the NBA restart.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday's victory.
Career Night for Rivers
Austin Rivers was an obvious candidate to receive additional playing time with Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon out of the lineup, and the eight-year veteran certainly delivered on Sunday night. Rivers scored a career-high 41 points in Houston's blowout victory, going 14-20 from the field and 6-11 from three. And the win featured every facet of Rivers' impressive arsenal. He was a stout defender and impressive playmaker, thriving when Houston pushed the pace in transition. Rivers is a bit of a jack-of-all trades for Houston. He can be the Rockets' top on-ball defender against the right personnel, and he's an effective slasher and driver. When Rivers' three-point shot is right, he emerges as an elite bench option in the backcourt.
"I play with the best scorer in the NBA, and I play with another one of the best scorers in the NBA," Rivers said following Sunday's victory. "You gotta play a role and buy-in, and that's what winning basketball is. But make no mistake, I know I can score the ball."
Rivers has never been known as a knockdown shooter in his career, though the Duke product has made strides of late. He's frankly been on fire from beyond the arc since returning from a wrist injury in late January, shooting 42.5% from three in his last 26 games before Sunday night. Perhaps the hot stretch is the product of small sample size, though that won't exactly concern the Rockets for now. Perhaps Rivers' hot hand can continue through August and September.
"He was just aggressive from the beginning of the game," Harden said postgame. "He's going to be a key piece to where we want to go."
More Milestones for Harden
Harden's scoring brilliance in recent years has led to a stream of career milestones, though Sunday night provided an accomplishment on the other end of the floor. Harden registered three steals against Sacramento, giving him the league lead in 2019-20 over Sixers guard Ben Simmons. With Simmons now out for the season, Harden is all-but-guaranteed to win the steals title. That will give Harden a steals, assist and scoring title in his career, further furbishing his resume as one of the greatest players of his era. His defensive prowess continues to grow by the year.
Harden made sure to add a minor offensive accomplishment vs. Sacramento. He passed Bob Pettit for No. 38 on the all-time scoring list on Sunday, and he should pass Pau Gasol on Tuesday afternoon. Harden should enter the top-30 all-time in 2020-21 if he continues his current pace. He could very well finish in the top-10 by the end of his career given his recent dominance.
We noted Harden's defensive impact above, and he wasn't alone in swiping the Kings on Sunday night. Houston forced 17 turnovers in the blowout win, and the film backs up the impressive metric. The Rockets hands were consistently active in passing and driving lanes, a staple of their small-ball defense since acquiring Robert Covington. Rivers added two steals to Harden and Covington's trio, and P.J. Tucker walled off the lane against an unimposing Sacramento frontcourt. The Rockets will face more talented personnel in the postseason, but Sunday provided another encouraging data point in their defensive progression.
Up Next: vs. Spurs on Tuesday
The Rockets will have a rare matinee in Orlando on Tuesday as they face the Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. San Antonio continued to keep its playoff hopes alive on Sunday as it defeated the Pelicans 122-113, but Popovich's crew is still on the outside-looking-in as it seeks a 23rd straight playoff appearance.
Tip-off on Tuesday is slated for 1 p.m. CT.