Final Score: Orlando Magic 88, Houston Rockets 98
Setting the scene: Inconsistency is a theme that seems to have run rampant with the Houston Rockets as they come into tonight’s matchup against the Orlando Magic with a solid but unspectacular 14-7 record. After posting an impressive win over the western powerhouse San Antonio Spurs, the Rockets followed it with two of the most embarrassing losses in recent memory, including a home defeat at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. They broke out of their slump by blowing out their rival Golden State Warriors on Friday in what James Harden called “a desperation game” and hoped to find consistency against lower-tiered teams as Dwight Howard’s former Magic squad came into town on the big man’s 28th birthday.
Off the court: The Rockets have upped their urgency in regards to trading disgruntled center Omer Asik. Daryl Morey and Co. have reportedly given team executives a time frame of December 15th – December 19th to place their best offers on the table, December15th being the first day that free agents signed last summer can be dealt, and December 19th being the last day that those same players can be repackaged and dealt again. Morey has a history of swindling other teams for talent or assets, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if history repeated itself.
The Opponent: On paper, the 6-13 Orlando Magic do not look like they pose much of a threat to the Rockets who hold almost an opposite record (14-7). On the court, however, the Magic are a squad loaded with young, growing talent and, when properly motivated, can do a lot of damage—just ask the Miami Heat. They boast an All-Star caliber center in Nikola Vucevic, Rookie of the Year candidate in Victor Oladipo, and one of the most underrated two-way forwards in Aaron Afflalo. Magic fans have much to be excited about, and it is safe to assume that with the way things shook down in Orlando, Howard’s former teammates will have plenty of motivation to try to spoil his birthday celebration.
Houston’s starting line-up: PG Patrick Beverley, SG James Harden, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Terrence Jones, C Dwight Howard
Orlando’s starting line-up: PG Jameer Nelson, SG Victor Oladipo, SF Aaron Afflalo, PF Andrew Nicholson, C Glen Davis
*Nikola Vucevic is out with a left sprained ankle.
Happy Birthday, Big Fella
Dwight Howard had a monster game on his 28th birthday, notching in the first half alone the 518th double-double of his career. Superman had one of the best games of his young Rockets career, scoring 20 points, grabbing 22 rebounds, and recording three blocked shots to boot. Dwight has been on a rebounding tear as of late, averaging an astonishing 19 rebounds over the last three games. After a slow stretch for Howard during much of November, the big man looks to have fully regained his bounce and looks like the dominant player we’ve come to expect of him.
Sealing the Magic
The Rockets took the wonder out of the Orlando Magic by shutting them down defensively. In the first half, the Magic shot 13-47 from the field (28%) en route to their forgettable 38-point first half. The Magic were able to raise their field goal percentage to 34% by the end of the game, but at that point the game was all but lost. James Harden, in particular, was spectacular on the defensive end. The Beard shut down Orlando’s best offensive player Aaron Afflalo almost single-handedly. Afflalo, who averages 22 points on the season, was held to just 16 points but on horrid 6-17. No, this was not a typo, James Harden played fantastic defense tonight.
Fear the Beard
We have talked about how surprisingly spectacular Harden was on the defensive end, but where The Beard usually shines is on the offensive end, and this game was no exception. Harden put up 27 points, from the field including three 3-pointers. He also orchestrated the offensive masterfully, recording a double-double with 10 assists as well. The Beard almost notched his first triple-double of the season but fell two rebounds short. Harden, again, felt extra motivated tonight and perhaps finally realizes that he will have to play this way night in and night out if the Rockets are to be taken seriously as western contenders.
Three different Rockets recorded double-doubles today, an impressive feat for any basketball team. Dwight Howard bullied his way 20 points and 22 rebounds, James Harden had his 27 points and 10 assists, and Terrence Jones completed the trifecta with 16 points, 13 rebounds, and five blocked shots of his own. The Rockets had three players record double-doubles in a contest last year (Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, and Terrence Jones), but that performance was not nearly as impressive as this one.
At this point, mentioning Houston turnovers feels like beating an old drum, but the Rockets are just horrendous when it comes to taking care of the basketball. At halftime, the Rockets had already compiled a whopping 10 turnovers while Orlando only had 2. By the end of the game, Houston committed 17 turnovers, which the Magic capitalized on for 22 points. Despite the Rockets’ overall impressive performance, the margin would have been a lot wider if only the Rockets took care of the ball as well as converted their free throws.
Free Throw Woes
The Rockets hit only 24 of their 42 free throw attempts (57%) in tonight’s contest. With a team free throw percentage that low, all signs point to Dwight Howard as the culprit, right? Wrong. Dwight, who normally shoots well on his birthday, stroked 8 of his 14 attempts and was the second best charity stripe performer on the team. It was the rest of the Rockets who struggled from the line. In fact, if you take away Dwight’s free throws as well as Harden’s (10-11 FTs), then the Rockets as a team would have shot only 6-17 from the line for only 35%.
Rockets’ player of the game: Dwight Howard