Russell Westbrook Bullies Grizzlies as Rockets Win Fifth Straight Game
It's hard to imagine the Rockets faring much better than they have through the first eight games of the small-ball era. Houston is 6-2 since Robert Covington's debut on Feb. 6, and Mike D'Antoni's squad extended its winning streak to five games with a 140-112 blowout over the Grizzlies on Wednesday. The Rockets' defense is thriving as it generates a slew of turnovers. Houston's MVPs are firing on all cylinders. The No. 2 seed in the Western Conference is certainly in play as the Rockets continue to cruise into March.
Here are three takeaways from Wednesday's victory as the Rockets advanced to 38–20 in 2019-20.
Westbrook Bullies Inside
Remember the Russell Westbrook we saw in November? Houston's point guard spent the first month with his new franchise in a state of hesitation, unsure of how to integrate himself into the Rockets' offense. We've seen a complete 180 in recent months.
Westbrook turned in another dominant performance in Wednesday's win, continuing one of the best stretches of his career. Westbrook finished Houston's win with 33 points on 15-24 shooting, pouring in 25 points in the first half. The effort on Wednesday was not dissimilar to Westbrook's recent brilliant performances. The 2016-17 MVP bullied the Grizzlies inside, finishing the night with 10 field goals in the lane. De'Anthony Melton and Ja Morant couldn't contain Westbrook on the perimeter. Jonas Valanciunas provided little intimidation at the rim. Westbrook drove to the basket at will on Wednesday, just as he has for the last two months. Westbrook is playing at an MVP level as the postseason looms.
Houston's other MVP turned in a strong performance alongside Westbrook on Wednesday. James Harden finished the night with a ho-hum 30 points on 9-16 shooting, banging home seven threes in the process. Houston’s win continued Harden's strong shooting stretch after a strange slump. The NBA's scoring leader is shooting 43.5% from beyond the arc in his last five games and 39.7% in February. As Westbrook rushes the rim, Harden is pouring in a healthy stream of buckets from beyond the arc.
Rockets Lock Down Memphis
Perhaps we should take the last two games with a grain of salt considering Houston's opponents, but the Rockets' defense has been stout in the small-ball era. Houston entered Wednesday night No. 8 in defensive rating in February, and its win over Memphis continued the impressive stretch. The Rockets are far from the largest team in the league. Yet over the last month, they've been one of the most active. Wednesday night was no different.
The Rockets forced 14 turnovers in Wednesday's victory, including eight in the first quarter. Entry passes into Valanciunas were eagerly swiped. Passing lanes were filled with outstretched arms. The Rockets dominated in transition on Wednesday, and their success started on the defensive end. They'll need similar intensity and effort to stay afloat in the postseason.
"Our activity was good tonight," D'Antoni said postgame. "The hands, the switches, getting the low man, getting some charges. ...We took them out of what they like to do, and it became their 1-on-1 players against our 1-on-1 players. I'll take our guys against anybody."
Rivers Shines Again
The Rockets made a concentrated effort to bolster their once-depleted rotation over the last few weeks, but the influx of veterans hasn't displaced any playing time for Austin Rivers. And for good reason. Rivers remains a key cog in Houston's bench lineups, providing tenacious point guard defense and a knack for finding his way to the rim. Rivers' three-point prowess of late has been icing on the cake.
The Duke product has been on fire from beyond the arc since returning from a thumb injury on Jan. 22. Rivers is banging home 44.4% of threes in his last 12 games, including a 4-7 performance en route to 23-point effort on Wednesday. Houston's bench mob is thriving in February. Rivers has been a catalyst.
"Obviously James and Russ set the tone every night, and right now everybody is finding their spots, finding their position," Rivers said postgame. "Offensively, we can't be guarded. I think we're the best offensive team in the league."
Up Next: at Celtics on Saturday
The Rockets will return to facing a team above .500 on Saturday night as they travel east for a matchup with Jayson Tatum and the Celtics. Boston is on a roll of late, winning 10 of its last 12 entering a battle with the Jazz on Wednesday night. Tatum has shined as the Celtics cruise. The 21-year-old forward is averaging 30.3 points per game in February, and he's banging home an absurd 49.5% of threes in that span. Tatum is unlocking his All-NBA potential as the Celtics gear up for a playoff run.
Tip-off from TD Garden in Boston on Saturday is slated for 7:30 p.m. CT.