James Harden looked to be in midseason form for much of Sunday’s contest, and the Rockets defense struggled to contain Memphis in transition. The Rockets’ offensive firepower is never in doubt. Their defensive shortcomings are often evident. But when push comes to shove, the performance of Houston’s MVPs will decide its season. Harden’s effort against the Grizzlies was certainly an encouraging sign.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s win.
Harden Leads the Way
Russell Westbrook faced a minutes limit in his second scrimmage in Orlando on Sunday, but the same rule didn’t apply to his fellow MVP. Harden led all players with 35 minutes in Houston’s victory, pouring in a game-high 31 points on 7-15 shooting. Harden has carried the offensive load to a historic degree in recent seasons. He’s likely to do the same in Orlando, starting with Sunday’s scrimmage.
“I want to build [my stamina] and get that going right now, so when next week starts I’m already prepared,” Harden said postgame. “I kind of wanted to push myself a little more and get a win.”
Not only did Harden lead the way on the offensive end on Sunday, he also served a critical role in upholding Houston’s small-ball defense. Harden battled big men Jonas Valanciunas and Jaren Jackson Jr. in the paint throughout the second half, holding his own as P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington battled foul trouble. Harden’s post defense has long been lauded by the Rockets. He proved his defensive mettle once again on Sunday.
“I think [Harden] is very underrated as a defensive player,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said postgame. “He’s always been one of the best post defenders in the league. …You can’t ask for a whole lot more.”
Bench Adds Boost
The Rockets’ starting lineup didn’t exactly shine on Sunday night as it battled a stream of shooting woes, but the poor play didn’t extend to a pair of Houston bench players.
Jeff Green was perfect from the field for much of Sunday’s matchup . The 12-year veteran hit his first five shots as he played his traditional backup center role, and Green turned back the clock with a thunderous dunk in the second quarter. Green appears ready to roll as the season’s resumption looms.
“I knew [Green was more than capable of helping us,” Harden said. “That was one of the reasons we reached out. He’s able to handle the basketball, he’s able to knock down shots, he’s pretty solid on defense, so he fits into what we’re doing. He’s been playing well.”
Green looked to be midseason form on Sunday, and the NBA’s hiatus hasn’t exactly hindered Ben McLemore, either. The sharpshooting guard buried six threes on seven attempts against Memphis, including a brief flurry midway through the fourth. McLemore’s defensive limitations could call his minutes into question in the wrong playoff series. But there are few better pure shooters in Orlando. A string of threes from McLemore may swing a game in the postseason.
“I think I have a value when I do the things I do well,” McLemore said following Sunday’s win. “Guard, stretch the floor, make shots. That’s my role on this team, to continue to do that consistently each day.”
Westbrook Struggles to Find Shot
Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon both appeared in Friday’s scrimmage vs. Toronto, but they sported some serious rust in Sunday’s win against Memphis. And while we certainly shouldn’t overreact to exhibition games, similar performances next week may worry D’Antoni and Co.
Westbrook struggled mightily from the field on Sunday after a solid performance on Friday night. Houston’s point guard hit just 3 of 14 shots vs. Memphis, missing his first six attempts. Westbrook began to show some verve driving to the basket in the third quarter, but his jump shot reverted to his 2019 form throughout Sunday night. Houston will need to see the efficient version of Westbrook in the coming weeks in order to truly contend for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Up Next: vs. Celtics on Tuesday
Houston will complete its scrimmage slate on Tuesday as they face the Celtics. The Rockets will then kick off their seeding games on Friday as they face Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.
Courtesy: Sports Illustrated