The Houston Rockets are finally healthy and will now look to show that they are legitimate title contenders.
Houston (15-4) picked up its 10th win in the last 11 games with a 117-102 victory over the New York Knicks (10-9) at the Toyota Center. The Rockets, who have won their last six games by double-figures, picked up the pace in the second half after a slow start. Down by 22 points in the first quarter, the Rockets outscored the Knicks 110-77 over the final 40:24 of the game.
New York was without Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter. Kanter, who has missed the last two games, and Porzingis are both dealing with back issues. Michael Beasley and Kyle O’Quinn started in their place. And the duo performed fairly well, combining for 50 points, on 21-of-32 shooting, and 23 rebounds. Beasley had his best game of the year with 30 points, eight rebounds and two assists.
James Harden led the way for the winners with 37 points and 10 assists for his ninth double-double of the season. He made 12 of a season-high 27 shots, including 5-of-13 from beyond the arc and 8-of-10 from the charity stripe. Ryan Anderson, in his first game coming off the bench, contributed 17 points along with seven rebounds while Clint Capela racked up his fifth double-double in his last six games with 12 points and 15 caroms. Trevor Ariza and Nene Hilario also finished in double-figures with 16 and 10 points, respectively.
1. It is not how you start, it is how you finish
New York has gotten out of the gate quickly in each of the last two games and ended losing both. The Knicks led the Hawks by 15 points at the end of one quarter on Friday, but was outscored 92-65 the rest of the way. The Knicks have scored 39 points in the opening quarter in each of their last two games and are averaging a league-high 34.2 points over the first 12 minutes in their last three contest.
A big reason why New York got off to such a hot start against Houston was the play of Beasley and Courtney Lee. Beasley and Lee scored 11 of the team’s first 15 points. They also had 25 of the Knicks 32 points through the first eight minutes. Beasley finished the quarter with 17 points, on 8-of-10 shooting, while Lee had 15, on 5-of-6 shooting including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc.
Overall, New York ranks ninth in the NBA in first quarter point production at 27.5 points a game. The Knicks are also ninth in scoring margin at plus-0.8 as they are allowing the 12th most points in the quarter (26.7). They are 7-4 in games they score 27 or more points in the first period.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Knicks have won five games when trailing at halftime and have won five games when leading at halftime.
Here is the thing Boston, Golden State, Toronto, Cleveland, New Orleans, Denver and Minnesota all have a 0 point differential or a negative differential. In the meanwhile, Houston along San Antonio, Portland, Indiana and Philadelphia have at least a 1.2 point margin in the opening frame.
2. The revival of Courtney Lee
Lee has been relatively consistent throughout his entire career. But the 32-year-old wing has looked rejuvenated of late. Lee, who finished with 17 points on Saturday, has scored in double-figures in four straight games and eight of nine, which includes two 20-point efforts. He had 40 double-figure games with four of them being of at least 20 points a year ago.
Lee is a knockdown standstill shooter who is excellent at moving without the ball and letting it fly in transition. He is knocking down 53.5% of his shots off of catch and shoot situations. Lee can also can get to the rim where he is an effective finisher though most of those buckets come off of screens or cuts.
Known as a “3 and D” wing, Lee is a good ball-handler as well as a passer. He will also get a few rebounds a game. But it is at the defensive end where Lee has stepped it up. He is an excellent perimeter defender that competes extremely hard. He generally is responsible for guarding the best perimeter player on the opposing team whether it is a small forward, shooting or point guard.
It will be interesting to see if teams come calling about Lee toward the trade deadline whether the Knicks will listen or not. Lee has a moderate contract though he does have two years left on the deal and the Knicks have a lot of money already on the table for next season.
Lee is having a career year. All of his numbers are personal bests. He is currently averaging 12.3 points, on 47.3% shooting, along with 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He also is hitting 1.7 treys a game at a 45.2% clip.
3. Knicks bench needs to step up
Yes, the Knicks were short-handed. However, the Knicks need more than 14 points from its reserve and not for them to combine for a negative -82 plus/minus rating like they did against the Rockets. It is the second straight game their bench has failed to tally 20 points and have a single player have a positive plus/minus rating.
Doug McDermott is the Knicks’ top-scorer off the bench at 7.9 points a game. However, if the Knicks are moving the ball or can’t get him open, Dougie McBuckets struggles. McDermott, who has six double-figure scoring games, is shooting the ball well -- making 45.7% of his shots including 41.1% from beyond the arc.
O’Quinn is more of an athletic rebounder and rim protector than a scorer. Although he has shown he is a capable scorer when he is in the starting lineup. The 6-10 big man is contributing 11.0 points and 10.5 boards in two starting assignments, compared to the 5.5 points and 5.7 rebounds in 17 games off the pine.
The only Beasley, who is also an excellent shooter with limited range, can do is a score. So, that limits his value off the bench as he has typically been getting 11.2 minutes a game when not starting.
Willy Hernangomez has seen sparse action this year after thriving last season in a reserve and starting role. Veteran Lance Thomas has been non-existent. And rookies Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson have struggled.
New York is getting 28.5 points a game from its reserves, which ranks 25th in the league.
4. Harden is an excellent ball-handler
This is not really a revelation, but what he did to Lee in the third quarter is embarrassing for a defender.
Harden has really focused on becoming a creator for teammates under Mike D’Antoni and has really done a nice job. His ball-handling and playmaking abilities allows Chris Paul to play off the ball when him and Harden are paired together. It also allows D’Antoni to basically use a three-guard rotation along with Eric Gordon.
Harden tops the league with 9.8 assists and assists percentage (49.6%) a contests. He has double-digit assists in nine of his 19 games, including a season-high 15. He also not had a game with fewer than five dimes. Where Harden usually gets hammered for is his turnovers. The 28-year-old combo guard is also second in the league in turnovers a game (4.6).
5. The Rockets offense is much better with Chris Paul in the lineup, No Duh!!!
Chris Paul has only played in five games, thus far. But his offseason addition has already paid major dividends. The Rockets are averaging 122.2 points with Paul in the lineup which is about nine points more than their season average. Houston is undefeated in games Paul has played in.
Paul is not shooting the ball well, 42.0% from the floor, which is the reason he is only producing 12. 2 points a game. However, he has doled out double-digit assists in four of the five games including a season-high 13 against the Knicks. The 32-year-old is averaging 10.2 assists a game. But he is way more valuable than his stats as he is the leader of the team.
6. Can’t leave Ryan Anderson alone when he is hot
Anderson was rock-n-rolling in his first ever stint as a reserve as a member of the Rockets. Anderson shot the Rockets back into the game, pouring in 14 points in the first nine minutes of action.The 6-9 power forward made 5-of-his-first-6 shots with three of those makes coming long distance. Anderson was 6-of-11 from the field and 4-of-7 on three-point attempts.
Anderson is one of the best long-bombers when he is feeling it The 29-year-old came into the game having scored 37 points on 11-of-19 (57.8%) shooting overall and 9-of-15 (60%)from the three-point line. Prior to these three games, Anderson had struggled in the month of November.
7. Clint Capela is fantastic around the rim
Whether it is on offense or defense, Rocket Clint Capela owns the restricted area. The 23-year-old Swiss native has made tremendous strides this year on both ends of the court. He is putting up career numbers: 12.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.8 blocks. He leads the league in field goal percentage (67.1%) and effective field goal percentage. Capela is also in the top-8 of the league in offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, blocks, offensive and defensive rating among others.
Capela’s best attribute has always been his athleticism. But he appears to be putting everything together.