Harden Strikes Back: Rockets 97, Warriors 96 — 4 Winners, 4 Losers

Harden for Dummies: Embrace the beard, have faith, but keep plenty of whiskey handy.EXPAND
Harden for Dummies: Embrace the beard, have faith, but keep plenty of whiskey handy.
Marco Torres

Monday night, I swore off the Houston Rockets after they fell behind 2-0 in their first-round series against the 73-win Golden State Warriors. Naturally, keeping alive a streak of 47 years of NOT keeping my blustery, hyperbolic sports promises, I was right back in front of the television Thursday night rooting for them.

The only way for me to sum up where I am with this exasperating group of basketball players right now is by using this six seconds of video footage...

It was a scintillating and, at times, infuriating game last night, but in the end, a win is a win, serve was held and the Rockets live to fight another day. Let's get to these winners and losers from last night...

WINNERS

4. Unconditional Rockets playoff backers
Yes, I was one of the people who, all season long, but especially down the stretch of the regular season, wanted the Rockets to make the postseason so that I could enjoy a few games of playoff basketball. Plus, I'm just not wired to root for my team to lose. If that's a flaw that makes me shortsighted in the face of some esoteric greater good that comes with a late lottery pick, that's a flaw I'm willing to live with. Thankfully, the Rockets gave us competitive people a one-night reprieve from sheep people on Twitter reminding us every two minutes that the Rockets sacrificed their lottery-protected first round pick (off to Denver in the Lawson deal!) to play the greatest regular season team of all time. Thank you, Rockets, for the break. 

3. Rockets executive Twitter smack talk game
Say what you will about the Rockets players' uneven effort level throughout the season, and even within games, but you cannot deny the want-to and all-around social media chutzpah of the Rockets' management team. Tad Brown, president and CEO of the team, fired this scud at Charles Barkley after the game last night... 

Then Daryl Morey fired off a barrage of tweets after the game about the celebration conspiracies (more on this in a moment), but my favorite Morey tweet was this one...

It may be hard to root for this team night to night, but so long as the culture remains feisty from the top, I am confident that measures will be taken to fix the on-court problems, and fix them quickly. I truly believe that. 

2. James Harden
Harden might be the most complex athlete to analyze. I don't know if I've ever seen an athlete be so great, yet get so much (mostly) justified criticism. Somehow, he is the only player I can ever think of for whom the statement "He is the reason the Rockets are the eight seed in the West" is simultaneously praise and criticism. I think at this point, knowing Harden is the linchpin of this team for the next several seasons, the only healthy way to consume the James Harden Experience in this moment is to 1) place your faith in the Rockets' brass that they will hire a head coach who connects with him, 2) trust Daryl Morey that they now recognize what the correct parts are to put around James, and 3) understand that he is the ONLY player on this team right now who is remotely considered a "plus" with the ball in his hands. Through nearly any prism, James Harden is great, and in close games, he's one of about four or five guys in the league that you'd unequivocally want on your team with the ball in their hands. Embrace the beard, have faith, but keep plenty of whiskey handy. That's my Harden for Dummies handbook. (Oh, also, he hit the game-winning shot last night, a sublime, calm saunter down the floor where he deftly created space and sank a smooth setback jumper. Again...great.)

1. Conspiracy theorists
Still, after Harden's shot, the biggest thing the Internet wanted to discuss (yes, the Internet is one big, often miserable, collective human being) was the Rockets' bench reaction...

Make no mistake, if this were the reaction of 29 other benches in the league to their star player hitting a game-winning shot, they'd be called "businesslike" or "focused." Also, no one is pointing out there were still 2.7 seconds remaining in the game. If the Warriors somehow hit a game winner, and the Rockets had celebrated as raucously as everyone seems to think they should have, they'd have been skewered for celebrating prematurely. Honestly, if this is the hill you're choosing to die on as someone who is analyzing the cultural side of the Rockets, I don't really know what to say to you except, on this topic, you're absurd. 

LOSERS

4. Draymond and Klay sans Steph
After scoring 115 points in Game 2, the Warriors were puffing out their chests, and many experts touted them as a borderline elite team even with Steph Curry on the bench with his ankle injury (as opposed to the greatest team ever with Steph healthy, just to be clear). The fact is that over an extended period of time with no Curry, life would get much, much harder for Klay Thompson and Draymond Green (and everybody else, but those are the other two All-Stars on this squad). On Thursday night, we got a small glimpse of that, with Thompson struggling all night (7-20 FG, 0-7 from three) and Green encapsulating his game (3-9 FG, 7 turnovers) with the bobble out of bounds with 2.7 seconds to go. Thursday night was as much an MVP validator for Steph as it is when he goes out and scores 40. 

3. Corey Brewer
I don't think J.B. Bickerstaff reads what I write, and I don't think he follows me on Twitter. If he does, and he still likes me, then he is the nicest person on the face of the earth, which I've heard from many people he may well be. But allow me to point out that I did write this on Tuesday morning:

It's one thing to be unable to motivate a possible mix that cannot be motivated. It's entirely another to be playing Corey Brewer for more than 20 minutes in an NBA game, let alone starting him out of nowhere in Game 1. (Yeah, your team's game is predicated on three pointers, so hey! I got an idea! Let's start the guy who last made a three pointer during the Clinton Administration!) 

Last night? Corey Brewer, three minutes. I am the puppet master. 

2. Dwight's temper
There are only four winners and four losers in this column, so sometimes it's hard to fit all of the nuances of the game into this format, but the format is easy to follow, easy to generate and hopefully easy to read. I say that to acknowledge that Dwight Howard was generally solid last night (13 points, 13 rebounds), especially in the first half, and may have been a "winner" last night. However, Golden State very easily got him out of his groove at the end of the first half when Andrew Bogut slapped an arm bar on him (which the ref called), and then Dwight threw the ball at Bogut (he missed and the ball sailed into the crowd). Technical foul. Not just a technical foul, but a technical foul that started a 9-0 Warriors run to close out the half, and in 90 seconds, the Warriors cut the Rockets' lead from 16 to 7. Dwight HAS to keep his head in that situation, but unfortunately, he is 30 years old, and this is who he is. 

1. The Inbounding Trevor Ariza
If J.B. Bickerstaff were to hold a contest to let a fan of the team make one tactical decision each night (honestly, considering some of J.B.'s tactical decisions, change "one" to "every" and it's not the worst idea in the world, but I digress), I would tell him, "Please let anyone other than Trevor Ariza inbound the ball late in games — Dwight, Beverley, Sam Dekker, Keith Jones, a JUGS machine on a four-second timer, ANYBODY." Ariza actually threw away the lead with 14 seconds to go on just a horrible panic of an inbounds pass, and then with 1.0 second to go, up 97-96 and inbounding at mid-court, he made the mind-numbingly stupid decision to throw the ball underneath the ROCKETS' basket, where it was almost picked off by Shaun Livingston for what would have been an easy layup to steal the win. In that situation, all you have to do is literally throw the ball off of any player to where he can't catch it and shoot it, and the clock basically runs out. Hell, if nothing else, use that as a free chance to throw a high heater at Draymond Green's face! But no, Ariza nearly threw the season away.

These boners by Ariza legitimately affected my enjoyment of the win. It took me a good 45 minutes to cool down. Probably a "me" issue, but dammit, Ariza, get your shit together, man. Now, let's go get Game 4. 

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.                  


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