Rockets Buried by Ja Morant, Grizzlies as James Harden Struggles

Michael Shapiro

The Rockets limped through the second half of their road battle against the Grizzlies on Tuesday, allowing rookie sensation Ja Morant to slice and dice their defense in Houston's 121-110 defeat. James Harden struggled with co-star Russell Westbrook out of the lineup, and Houston's supporting cast (save for Eric Gordon) failed to provide an adequate contribution. The Rockets trend of struggling against sub-.500 teams continued on Tuesday, dropping them to 26–13 as they attempt to keep pace near the top of the Western Conference. 

Here are three takeaways from Tuesday's defeat. 

Morant Slices Rockets

We might as well give Morant the Rookie of the Year Award now. The No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft is an absolute dynamo at 20-years-old, flashing an athleticism akin to early career Westbrook. Morant shredded Houston on Tuesday. He finished the night with 26 points on 10-11 shooting, but the performance was perhaps more impressive than his stat line. Morant was a maestro in the half court and a menace on the fast break, toying with every defender Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni threw his way. We all know Morant is one of the league's best leapers. Did we know he has a silky step-back, too?

Morant is the headliner for a Grizzlies' young core that is among the most exciting in the league. 2018 No. 3 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. finished Tuesday night with 15 points and two blocks, while the combo of Brandon Clarke and De'Anthony Melton combined for 26 points on 16 shots. Memphis has won six in a row. It holds the No. 8 seed in the West. Morant and Co. could be serious contenders for the conference crown in the 2020s. 

Harden Posts Inefficient 41

Harden crossed the 40-point mark for the 16th time this season at the FedExForum on Tuesday, though the effort will likely be one the two-time scoring champion would like to forget. Harden needed 37 shots to reach 41 points, and he finished the night 5-19 from three. On a night where Morant was electric, Harden appeared sluggish, burdened by an extreme playmaking load as Russell Westbrook sat out the first leg of Houston's back-to-back. The tread on Harden's tires was clear in the fourth quarter as he went 0-7 from the field. Life without a co-star can be difficult. 

Wednesday's (relatively) poor performance on Tuesday continued a rough shooting week for the 2017-18 MVP. Harden has now made just 35 of 105 shots (33.3%) since Jan. 8, including a 17-59 (28.8%) mark from three. A night off could do Harden some good, though one is unlikely to arrive in the near future as Houston faces a difficult schedule until the All-Star Game on Feb. 16. 

Houston Hit by Foul Trouble

The Grizzlies decimated Houston inside on Tuesday, winning the points in the paint battle 56-44. Center Jonas Valanciunas finished the night with 19 points on 8-14 shooting, while seven of Morant's ten made shots came inside the foul line. Clint Capela's extended absence made a significant impact on Memphis' performance near the tin. 

Capela started for the Rockets on Tuesday after missing Saturday's game due to a right heel contusion, and the 25-year-old center finished the night with 16 points and 16 rebounds. But Capela was out for much of the second half as he battled foul trouble. He picked up his fifth foul with 3:27 left in the third quarter, then sat on the bench until entering the game with just over five minutes left in the contest. Isaiah Hartenstein and Tyson Chandler were ineffective in Capela's place, combining for two points in six minutes. Going small didn't work for D'Antoni. Houston's backup bigs struggled. The Rockets missed Capela's presence badly as Memphis seized control of the contest. Even as Hartenstein shows promise, the Rockets still rely heavily on their starting center. 

Up Next: vs. Portland on Wednesday

The Rockets will have little time to shake off Tuesday's loss as they host the Blazers on Wednesday in the second night of a back-to-back. Wednesday will mark Carmelo Anthony's return to the Toyota Center, though it's hard to imagine any video tribute will be in order after Anthony logged just 10 games with the Rockets last season. It's been a solid year for Anthony in Portland, though, as he is averaging 16.3 points per game on 39.4% from three. 

Tip-off on Wednesday is slated for 8:30 p.m. CT. 

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