James Harden Scores 49 Points, Leads Rockets Comeback Over Mavericks
MVP performances from James Harden and Russell Westbrook are required for the Rockets to make an extended run in Orlando. And in that respect, Houston got off to a ideal start on Friday.
James Harden led all scorers with 49 points on just 20 shots in this Lone Star State battle, while Russell Westbrook fell just two assists short of a triple-double. It wasn't the prettiest performance of the season, but Houston escaped its first game in Orlando with a 153-149 victory over Luka Doncic and the Mavericks. After facing a double-digit deficit with 12 minutes to play, the Rockets will take a win however they can get it.
Houston didn't make it easy on itself in Friday's victory. The Rockets' defensive performance oscillated between middling and disastrous, with Dallas taking them to task in multiple facets. Houston's on-ball defense struggled mightily on the perimeter, especially in the first half. The Rockets ran into trouble executing their switch-everything scheme, and Doncic spent much of the contest waltzing to the lane at will. The result was a slate of open jumpers. Four Mavericks hit multiple threes on Friday, including eight from Trey Burke. The Rockets' effort wasn't necessarily problematic. Their execution was a true issue.
The Rockets also ran into a sheer personnel problem in Friday's matchup. Their small-ball lineup was pummeled inside by Dallas' super-sized front line, a group headlined by Kristaps Porzingis. The Latvian forward led Dallas with 39 points on 50% shooting on Friday, adding 16 rebounds. The Rockets hemorrhaged second-chance points for much of the night, and it looked to be their death sentence through three quarters.
Houston's defensive shortcomings won't be solved overnight, and some of the issues will continue to persist throughout the season. But an elite defense isn't necessarily required for a deep playoff run, especially considering Houston's two leading men. Both Harden and Westbrook played like true MVPs in spurts this season, though the strong play hasn't necessarily lined up for extended stretches. Westbrook started the season slow, then turned in a hyper-efficient two months once the calendar turned to 2020. Harden faced the opposite timeline. He was on pace to set the non-Wilt scoring record through Christmas, then endured an elongated slump. But if Friday night is any indication, both MVPs are now ready to play their best basketball at a critical juncture of the season.
The Rockets' MVPs stole the show per usual on Friday, yet Houston's victory wasn't solely thanks to a dynamic duo. Danuel House shined in his return to the starting lineup, banging home six threes. Ben McLemore went 4-for-4 from three, and while he didn't have a strong shooting night, Robert Covington came up clutch with a pair of the game's biggest plays.
Covington tied the contest with 3.3 seconds left in regulation with a tip-in off a missed free throw. He followed that with a triple in the final 90 seconds of overtime, giving the Rockets a two-score lead it would never relinquish. Houston sacrificed serious size when it swapped Clint Capela for Covington. But it's hard to see Daryl Morey regretting his February gamble even a little bit after Covington's first 15 games as a Rocket.
"I've worked on that play numerous times with different teams that I've been on," Covington said postgame. "[Harden] missed it perfectly. Normally you miss it to the right, but it just so happened that it rimmed out and it went around."
There's plenty for the Rockets to clean up ahead of Sunday's matchup with Milwaukee. Their on-ball defense was poor, and their rotations were even worse. The potential for extended shooting droughts is omnipresent, a staple of Rockets playoff series in the Harden era. But Friday's victory was largely encouraging. Houston showed serious fight in erasing its fourth-quarter deficit, keeping the contest close even as it struggled on both ends of the floor. The Rockets will face plenty of adversity in Orlando. Their effort against Dallas must be mirrored throughout the 2020 playoffs.
"It’s huge for us," Westbrook said following Friday's win. "It shows that we have fight. It shows that we can close games."