Rockets Bust Raptors' Trap, Salvage Road Trip With Win
The Rockets put Tuesday's fiasco in San Antonio behind them on Thursday as they pulled out a 119-109 win over the defending-champion Raptors in Toronto. The road victory wasn't Houston's prettiest performance of the season, but a deep cast of contributors advanced James Harden and Co. to 14–7 on the year. The Rockets' offense is largely humming after some November woes against creative defenses.
Here are three takeaways from Thursday's victory.
Toronto Turns Up Trap
The Raptors committed to double teaming Harden at nearly every opportunity on Thursday night, blitzing a second defender at the two-time scoring champion whenever he crossed halfcourt. The strategy flummoxed Houston in November, but the Rockets now appear fully comfortable punishing teams when they double Harden. Toronto was the latest victim on Thursday.
Harden finished the win in Toronto with a modest stat line, scoring 23 points on just 11 shots. But the rest of the Rockets more than picked up the slack. Houston made 22 threes on the night, including a career-high eight triples from Ben McLemore. The Rockets pinged the ball around the perimeter throughout the evening. They rolled downhill quickly and aggressively off the Harden doubles, running 4-on-3's with precision. Houston had its greatest success against the double teams when it went small, pairing Harden with McLemore, Austin Rivers, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker. All five players were a threat to score and make a play in space, collapsing the integrity of Toronto's typically stout defense.
Rockets Role Players Shine
It's rare for the Rockets to win when Harden has a quiet night from the field, but Houston's role players shined on Thursday night. McLemore led the way with 28 points. Danuel House added 16 in his first game back after battling an illness, and P.J. Tucker finished the contest with 18 points and 11 rebounds. The trio of shooters made the Raptors pay for their defensive scheme throughout the victory.
Austin Rivers finished the night with just nine points, but he was arguably the Rockets' most valuable asset in beating the Harden trap. Rivers was a key flashpoint in Houston's attack, serving as a constant outlet for Harden near the three-point line. Rivers was decisive with the ball and precise with his reads. It's a shame his numerous hockey assists won't appear in the box score. Rivers finished with a game-high plus-18 in 28 minutes, and the metric isn't a coincidence. He was excellent on Thursday night.
Westbrook Struggles Continue
Russell Westbrook has now recorded a triple-double in two straight games, but neither have been performances to remember for the 2016-17 MVP. Westbrook finished Tuesday's loss to the Spurs 7-30 from the field and 1-6 from three. Thursday night brought similar results.
Westbrook had another disastrous night from the field, scoring 19 points on 7-27 shooting and 0-6 from three. The Rockets' point guard added eight turnovers along with his 11 assists and 13 rebounds, and he struggled mightily until the closing moments, where he converted two layups in the final two minutes. His late-game production salvaged a truly difficult road trip.
The former Thunder point guard will return home in the midst of an abysmal shooting season. Westbrook has the worst three-point percentage (21.6%) of any player with over 100 attempts in 2019-20, and his 40% mark from the field ranks 32nd of the 33 players with at least 300 shots. Westbrook's athleticism and passing prowess still makes him an offensive asset, even with a broken jump shot. Even passable shooting could vault the Rockets' offense to the top of the NBA.
Up Next: vs. Phoenix on Saturday
The Rockets will return home after their two-game road trip for a home matchup with the Suns.
Phoenix is looking to avoid a 10th straight lottery appearance in 2019-20, sitting at 10–11 after a hot start. Devin Booker leads Phoenix in scoring with 25 points per game.
Tip-off from the Toyota Center is slated for 7 p.m. CT.