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Game Day: Rockets vs. Lakers

Harden erupts for 38 points as Rockets rally for 113-99 win over Lakers

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers:

POST-GAME

Not content with mere domination, James Harden decided a healthy dash of hoops education needed to be doled out amid his latest series of third quarter heroics. So when the Rockets’ All-Star guard found Lakers rookie Ryan Kelly standing between him and the basket on a fast break foray, Harden seized the opportunity to introduce the youngster to his signature move.

Ryan Kelly, meet the Harden Euro Step. The end result was entirely predictable. The carnage left behind: the stuff of SportsCenter legend.  

Harden’s dazzling dipsy-doo bucket - he later dubbed it "rookie hazing" - delivered two of his 17 third quarter points as Houston overcame a sluggish first half to knock off Los Angeles 113-99. It marked the third straight game Harden has erupted in the third period, and also the third consecutive contest in which the 24-year-old star finished with 37 points or more (he tallied 38 tonight), making him the first Rockets player to do so since Hakeem Olajuwon pulled off the feat during the 1994-95 season.

Rockets/Lakers Gallery

"He's been on a roll," marveled Houston head coach Kevin McHale after the game. "He played downhill just being aggressive. I tell him that every time he gets a big on him in the pick-and-roll, just play downhill. He's not an east-west player, he's a north-south player, and when he's playing north-south he's really, really hard to guard."

Harden’s third quarter dominance rescued the Rockets from the quagmire that had seemingly swallowed the team during an ugly first half that saw many of the same issues that have dogged Houston for the past couple weeks rear their ugly heads once again. After having a season-high four full days off, maybe rust had something to do with it. And surely the Rockets missed the movement and pace of Chandler Parsons (out with a knee injury), the interior presence of Omer Asik (knee) and the non-stop energy of Patrick Beverley (hand). But using injuries as any sort of excuse rang awfully hollow given the myriad ailments currently afflicting the Lakers.

Whatever the case, the Rockets simply got outworked and out-executed during the first two periods of Wednesday night’s contest as Los Angeles opened up a lead that at one point ballooned to 11. A quick summary of some of the breakdowns that led to Houston's deficit: the Lakers, 24th in the NBA averaging 37.8 paint points per game, had 32 in the first half alone; an LA team that averages 12 fast break points per contest had 15 at the half; the Lakers average 12 second chance points per game - they had 16 at the break. You get the idea.

"We came in at halftime and it was the same thing as always, just beating a dead horse with it," said Jeremy Lin when asked after the game about the Rockets' recent penchant for slow starts. The solution was simple: "Play harder," Lin prescribed. 

Sure enough, everything changed in the third quarter when an improved and properly motivated Houston defense forced a flood of Lakers turnovers  - seven in the period in all - helping to fuel Harden in particular as well as the rest of Houston’s previously lethargic attack. Suddenly the Rockets were energizing the Toyota Center crowd in a dizzying display of rim runs and fast break flurries. And at the center of Houston's 33-15 third period huricane stood Harden, who left his indelible mark upon the game, the Lakers, and one helpless rookie during the game's signature sequence.

"I knew it was mano-a-mano, give me your best shot," Harden said when asked for his thoughts as he was bearing down on Kelly. "I gave it to him."

Harden punctuated that final line with the knowing laugh of an older brother who just finished gleefully schooling a younger sibling that was powerless to put an end to the torture and humiliation. But the Lakers' rookie need not feel alone; of late no player or team has had an answer for slowing Harden once the third quarter begins. Over the course of the past three games, Houston's hirsute two-guard is averaging 25.3 points on 57.1 percent shooting from the field - in the second half alone. His teammates aren't in awe - they've seen Harden weave this sort of magic before - but they are most definitely enjoying the ride. 

"In the third quarter I was just trying to play defense and then get out of the way on offense," Lin said afterward. "He just carried us and did a great job with it.

"I think he’s doing a great job reading the defense – that might be the biggest thing for him. If you come up too high, he can hit Dwight on a lob; he has his step-back game, (he excels) at drawing fouls - he can do it all." 

The key for Houston going forward now lies in finding a way to ensure they don't need the superhuman, second half version of Harden to bail them out every night. The Rockets collectively understand they simply must do a better job summoning the requisite energy, focus and urgency right from the start of the first quarter, not just the third. It's been a big talking point of late, but now it needs to start becoming a regular reality, especially given the fact the club embarks upon a four-game road trip beginning this Friday night in Atlanta.

"We have to come out and play harder from the get-go," McHale said matter-of-factly. "It’s hard to explain it. We've talked about getting off to good starts and not giving teams confidence. We need to come out and play at the start of the game the way we came out in the third quarter." 

NOTES AND QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On 3rd quarter defense) “We played a lot harder and just got more aggressive. We got up into them. We didn't have as many breakdowns in the first half. In the first half, we had a lot of individual breakdowns on drives and just one on one plays. We let them go to their strong hand and they broke us down and it was really easy (for them). We did a better job in the second half of defending. Needless to say, it was a big difference in the game.”

(On controlling turnovers) “We had two good days of practice. They got after it. I thought for the most part...we still had a few turnovers. We're not going to have any games where you don't have any but we took care of the ball pretty well tonight. I thought in the third quarter we shared it pretty well and we were able to run off our defense and attack.”

(On team's play) ”I thought Terrence went out there and rebounded well. He ended up with thirteen rebounds for us. Dwight got thirteen rebounds as well. We got to the line fifty times. They were fouling Dwight late. We still have yet to hit our stride shooting the ball from the three point line. The good news is that Aaron came in and made three and got a couple of guys going. It seems like that gets contagious and we get some guys knocking down some threes.”

(On slow start to games) “We've done that a lot. We can't do that on the road. We got to start out...we seem to start easing into the game. We can't ease into a game. Especially on the road. We have to play a lot harder from the get-go.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On his scoring) “Just being aggressive. My feet have been feeling better. My three ball is feeling good. Obviously I didn't make a couple that I should have made tonight. I was just staying in attack mode.”

(On the adjustments made after the first half) “Just focused. Just focused, man. We got to do a better job of focusing through all four quarters. In that first half we gave up 25 points in each quarter in the first half and then in third quarter we were up by fifteen (points). Just mentally focused and then prepared to execute our job.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On the key to the Rockets big run in the 3rd quarter) “Our defense got a lot better. We were moving our feet and we were talking more. In the first half, we didn't talk at all on defense and they (Lakers) were just scoring at will. We did a better job in the second half of trying to stop the pick and roll game and we didn't allow (Kendall) Marshall to get into the paint and make plays for a lot of guys. He is good at that so we just want to keep him away from the paint and I think our turnovers were down tonight so that's pretty good for us.”

(On the third straight game that James Harden has scored at least 37 points) “He's just been very efficient. He is taking good shots and he is getting to the basket and the free throw line. He is doing what he is supposed to do.”

JEREMY LIN

(On the Rockets defense in the 3rd quarter/holding Lakers to 15 points in 3rd quarter) “We came in at half time and it was the same thing as always, play harder, and that's what we did in the second half and the results show.”

(On James Harden's big game scoring) “In the third quarter I was just trying to play defense and then get out of the way on offense. He just carried us and did a great job of it.”

(On the sluggish start) “I would love to blame it on the fact that we haven't played in a few days but I feel like this has been going on since last year so I would say it is a mixture of the two.”

TERRENCE JONES

(On the win) “It was a good win. I think we started having more transition points and James got it going for us.”

(On the Rockets slow start after five days off since last game) “We had to get back to playing and getting used to going up and down. Taking a couple days off could have made our legs weak and just not getting used to not being in the mode of playing. We got back to it in the third quarter and it really paid off.”

L.A. LAKERS COACH MIKE D’ANTONI

(On what the problem was in the third quarter)”It’s just a repeat of what we’ve been doing. We seem to run out of energy. I don’t know if they are getting tired or it’s just the other team turns on the burners, but we have break downs and somehow we have to able to sustain our good play for 48 minutes. So far, we haven’t been able to do that.”

(On James Harden out scoring the Lakers team in the third quarter) “He’s good. We tried everything, he’s going to score points and stuff and he’s going to get what he gets. We just have to do a better job, but at the same time, he’s had those games those games before and he’s going to have them again. There were too many times we had fast breaks and we turned the ball over. I forget how many turnovers. You can’t turn it over, there is no defense for that. We’ve been giving up way too many points on turnovers and that’s been killing us.”

(On the Hack-A-Howard) “Its nothing I like, it makes an ugly game, but we’re trying to get a win. It wasn’t like we were stopping them. I thought we did have a couple of chances when we hit a three and got it down to eight. It is what it is.”

WESLEY JOHNSON

(On what changed in the second half) “I just think we just came out flat. It seems like it was the same story. They came out and got a lot of easy points in transition. They just beat us to the punch on a lot of stuff and weren’t able to stop them on defense and they were able to get the lead and they took advantage of us.”

(On guarding James Harden) “You just have to keep your hands back because he draws a lot of contact, so we tried to play him honest and straight because he throws himself into you and it’s hard to not stick your hand and reach in. It’s difficult because he gets to the line a lot. It’s really tough playing him honest.”

JODIE MEEKS

(On the team’s recent play in the third quarter) “I don’t know. Obviously, we have to cut down on turnovers. We knew going in that they are a second half team. For some reason, it just didn’t happen (for us). It sounds like a broken record. Every game it seems to be the same story, so we just have to figure it out.”

(On James Harden’s third quarter) “He’s a good player. We know he’s a tough cover. He had fifteen at the half. He’s a really good player and he’s tough to guard. He gets to the free throw line, so it makes hard for us to guard because he gets a lot of calls. We know that going in, but you can’t take anything away from him. He’s just a good player and we have to fight through it.”

PAU GASOL

(On their third quarter problems) “The other team turns it up, and we just need to be a little bit more assertive, understanding that we need to get a good start because after a good first half, regardless of what we did in the first half, we have to be able to play another good half or quarter and keep doing what we did well. It’s hard at times, but we understand especially on the road, but it’s also happened to us at home. We try our best, fighting, battling, but it is what it is.”

(On the Hack-A-Howard strategy) “When he’s not making his free throws and is shooting below 50%. I’m not a big fan of it, but I understand that it really disrupts their team’s offensive rhythm and it allowed us to win the game earlier in the season. Today, the game wasn’t close, but it definitely disrupts any kind of rhythm that the team has. I don’t think he (Dwight Howard) even though his points go up, even if he makes fifty percent of them, he doesn’t enjoy it to be put in that, but I guess we were down and we had to do something to try to get back in the game. Hopefully, trade one point for three and like I said, it is disrupting for their team but that’s not my call to make.”

NOTES

Houston registered another sold out crowd of 18,229 tonight, giving the Rockets 19 sellouts on the season.

The Rockets outscored the Lakers by a 33-15 count in the third quarter to rally for a 113-99 victory tonight. Houston, which trailed by as much as 11 points in the first half, has now overcome a double-digit deficit in each of their last seven wins over the Lakers dating back to 2009-10 (avg. deficit overcome: 13.7 ppg).

Houston went 28-of-50 (.560) from the stripe tonight, marking the third time this season the Rockets have attempted 50-plus free throws in a game (twice against Lakers and once against Dallas). Prior to this season, Houston had not attempted 50-plus free throws since 2010-11 (51 on 11/24/10 vs. Golden State).

The Rockets took the battle of the boards by 52-47 over the Lakers tonight, giving Houston 11 50-rebound games in 2013-14 (Rockets record: 9-2).

Houston poured in 56 points in the paint tonight, giving the Rockets 35-plus points in the paint in each of their 36 games this season. It matches Houston’s longest single-season streak of scoring at least 35 points in the paint over the last 10 seasons (36-game streak in 2012-13).

The Rockets racked up 27 points off the break tonight, equaling their season high of 27 fast-break points set at Golden State (12/13/13).

James Harden matched his season-high 38 points (14-23 FG, 8-11 FT) and made a season-best five steals tonight. Harden becomes the first Rockets player to score at least 37 points in three consecutive games since Hakeem Olajuwon back in 1994-95 (three games: 42 on 12/29/94, 37 on 12/30/94 and 41 on 1/3/95). He also notched 30-plus points in three straight games for just the second time since joining the Rockets (other: 2/6/13-2/10/13). After posting consecutive 16-point third quarters vs. Sacramento (12/31/13) and vs. New York (1/3/14), Harden netted another 17 points (7-10 FG, 1-3 3FG, 2-4 FT) in the third stanza tonight.

Dwight Howard posted 20 points (5-14 FG, 10-24 FT), 13 rebounds, a season-best four steals, three assists and one blocked shot tonight. Howard becomes the first Rockets player to ever attempt at least 24 free throws in two separate games within a single season.

Terrence Jones finished with 15 points (7-14 FG) and 13 rebounds (6 offensive) tonight. Jones, who had just one double-double in his rookie campaign, now has nine double-doubles on the season.

Ronnie Brewer made the first start of his Rockets career tonight, replacing an injured Chandler Parsons (sore right knee). Overall, it marked Brewer’s first start since opening New York’s game last season at Indiana (1/10/13).

Nick Young topped five Lakers in double-figure scoring with 25 points (10-20 FG) off the bench tonight. Young has now hit the 20-point mark in nine of the last 13 games.

Pau Gasol added 21 points (8-13 FG, 5-6 FT), 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks tonight. Gasol came into this game averaging 21.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists in his first three games of the new 2014 calendar year.

Jodie Meeks, who topped six Lakers in double-digit scoring with 18 points (6-9 FG, 5-7 3FG) in the prior meeting at Houston (11/7/13), netted 21 points (5-13 FG, 2-5 3FG, 9-10 FT) tonight.

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Los Angeles Lakers (14-21) at Houston Rockets (22-13)

Point Differential:

Lakers: -4.7 (NBA rank: 26th)

Houston: +3.1 (NBA rank: 9th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Lakers: 100.6 (22nd)

Houston: 107.5 (3rd)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Lakers: 104.8 (22nd)

Houston: 102.9 (16th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Lakers: 99.30 (3rd)

Houston: 98.01 (7th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Lakers: 49.4% (12th)

Houston: 53.1% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Lakers: 15.5 (13th)

Houston: 16.8 (28th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Lakers: 47.4% (29th); offensive rebound rate: 22.5% (27th); defensive rebound rate: 71.8% (29th)

Houston: 51.9% (6th); offensive rebound rate: 27.0% (8th); defensive rebound rate: 73.5% (20th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Lakers: .272 (15th)

Houston: .394 (1st)

At some point this season the Rockets have to record a win against a team from Los Angeles, right? The first 10 days of the 2013-14 campaign saw Houston suffer dispiriting defeats at the hands of the Clippers (twice) and Lakers, prompting a plethora of ill will and animus to be directed from Houston to Hollywood during that oh so unfortunate stretch.

But with the dawn of a new calendar year comes a golden opportunity to start anew and break free from those less than desirable feelings. Because, let’s face it, the Lakers may never be more vulnerable than they are right now. A plague has ripped through Los Angeles this season and it’s taken direct aim at the point guard position, sidelining all three of the Lakers’ on-court quarterbacks (while recently nabbing the Clippers’ Chris Paul as well). Throw in the latest Kobe Bryant injury and you have a team in complete disarray, having lost eight of its last nine games.

None of this means the Rockets can afford to overlook LA, of course. There’s scant chance of that after Houston allowed a late lead to slip away the last time the Lakers paid a visit to Toyota Center. Los Angeles sprung that upset by draining an unholy amount of 3-pointers, finishing with 16 for the night after knocking down 11-of-14 from beyond the arc in the first half alone. Fittingly, Steve Blake sealed Houston’s fate by sinking a game-winning triple with 1.3 seconds remaining.

But with Blake, Stave Nash and Jordan Farmar in street clothes tonight, the men who accounted for nearly half of those 16 3s will be non-factors this evening. The paper-thin Lakers played last night in Dallas, meaning tonight will serve as their third game in four nights. The Rockets, meanwhile, have enjoyed a season-high four full days off in advance of this evening’s tilt.

Translation: The time has never been better to beat L.A.

Know Thy Enemy

- Still the best way for underdogs to tilt the odds in their favor in today’s NBA: Increasing the variance by taking as many 3s as possible. The Lakers have served as the living embodiment of that philosophy this season as can be seen with just the quickest of glances at their 2013-14 shot chart. Nearly 28 percent of Los Angeles’ points this season have come via the 3-ball – the second-highest such percentage in the NBA (only Portland ranks higher at 28.5 percent). The Lakers are fourth overall in 3s attempted per game and third in corner 3s taken per contest. Meanwhile, LA is 28th in the league in terms of shots attempted within the restricted area which goes a long way in explaining why the Lakers reside in the NBA’s bottom-10 in paint points per game.

Few teams, if any, live and die by the 3 quite like the Lakers do. So if the Rockets’ rotations, close-outs and transition D are on point tonight, there’s a high probability LA’s offensive attack will perish accordingly.

- So who’s left to man the Lakers’ point guard position? The latest to take the reins is second-year point man Kendall Marshall, who was called up from the D-League last month when LA found itself in dire need of healthy bodies. Marshall entered the league with a reputation as a smart, savvy and gifted passer, and he’s shown those skills off over the last week while racking up a jaw-dropping total of 32 assists in consecutive games against the Jazz and Nuggets.

The knock on Marshall coming out of college was that his slow foot speed left him vulnerable on defense and many wondered if he’d be able to shoot the ball well enough on the other side of the floor to keep opposing defenses honest. And while his individual D remains an issue (as it admittedly does for the vast majority of young point guards), Marshall has made enormous strides as a shooter this season. The North Carolina product knocked down more than 46 percent of his 3s during his 7-game stint in the D-League and he’s hitting 50 percent of his triples so far with the Lakers. Those averages will undoubtedly regress over time, but the fact he’s been able to post such gaudy numbers in the first place is a testament to the offseason work he put in on his shooting stroke.

- As has been the case with many of his teammates, this season has been a rough one for Pau Gasol to date. The four-time All-Star is currently shooting a career-worst 44.7 percent from the field, continuing a trend that has seen his shooting percentage plummet for the fifth consecutive season.

The primary cause for that continuous dip is simple enough to divine. During the 2009-10 season when Gasol hit more than 53 percent of his field goal attempts, a whopping 67 percent of his shots came from within 8-feet of the basket and he connected on nearly 59 percent of those attempts. Since that campaign, Gasol has experienced a steady decline in both the percentage of shots he takes from that range and in his hit rate from that distance. That trend has reached its apex (or nadir, depending upon your perspective) this season with Gasol now attempting fewer than 47 percent of his shots from 8-feet or fewer while hitting only slightly more than half of them – a deadly mix given that his field goal percentage from everywhere else on the floor this season stands a shade under 40 percent.

The Lakers’ center has shown signs of turning things around of late, however, having started 2014 by averaging 21 points and more than 13 rebounds per game while shooting 47 percent from the field. He’ll be hard pressed to match those numbers tonight, though, given the presence of Dwight Howard, who limited the 33-year-old Spanish national to a mere two points on 1-of-10 shooting the last time these two teams met.   

In the spotlight

Dwight Howard doesn’t want to talk about the Lakers anymore and who can blame him? On multiple occasions when asked about his former team this week, the seven-time All-Star has feigned falling asleep. There is little doubt, however, that he will be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by the time 7 o’clock comes around.

Howard has gone three straight games without pulling down double-digit rebounds – a streak that figures to end tonight given the fact LA stands as the second-worst rebounding team in the league. The only other time this season he went through a similar stretch, Howard promptly proceeded to go on a month-long tear that saw him finish December with averages of more than 19 points and nearly 14 boards per game. Toss in the facts that the Lakers concede more shot attempts per game inside the restricted area than anyone and give up the second-highest number of paint points per game (48.2), and all the ingredients are there for Howard to go off tonight.

To be sure, Howard doesn’t need to have a monster game for the Rockets to win. LA’s perimeter D is similarly leaky – James Harden exploded for 35 points the last time the Lakers came to town – and Terrence Jones, a DNP-CD against Los Angeles back in November, looms as a potential nightmare for the Lakers’ bigs and their team’s 25th-ranked (per Synergy) transition defense. But the conditions sure seem right for the kind of dominant performance that will allow Howard to say more than enough through his actions rather than his words.  

Injury Update

Chandler Parsons (knee) did not take part in this morning’s shootaround and is being listed as a game-time decision. Greg Smith, also dealing with a knee issue, says he will play. Omer Asik (knee) and Patrick Beverley (hand) are out.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, will be without the services of Kobe Bryant (left knee), Steve Nash (back), Steve Blake (torn ulnar collateral ligament), Xavier Henry (right knee) and Jordan Farmar (left hamstring tear).

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.