Rockets experiment without Harden, now host Hawks
James Harden carried a heavy load for such an extended period that it was difficult to predict how the Houston Rockets would play in his absence on Saturday, particularly against the reigning NBA champions and Western Conference-frontrunner Golden State Warriors.
What the Rockets mustered without the NBA's leading scorer was a balanced approach on offense and a dogged defensive effort in their 118-112 win, their third victory in as many games against the Warriors this season.
These regular-season showdowns between West rivals might prove immaterial should they meet again in the playoffs, but the Rockets were able to glean vital tidbits while playing unusual personnel packages, pairings that might prove noteworthy as they continue their stretch drive on Monday against the Atlanta Hawks at Toyota Center.
"I thought we played really well," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Was really glad to see (Kenneth) Faried and Clint (Capela) can play together -- that gave us a nice look. Just a lot of good things."
Fond of innovating with smaller lineups, D'Antoni inserted Faried in the starting lineup with Harden sidelined by a neck strain and flu-like symptoms. That move supersized the Houston frontline with Capela occupying his usual spot at center and P.J. Tucker shifting to small forward to accommodate Faried. That trio combined to corral 35 of the Rockets' 48 rebounds.
With Harden (32 straight performances of 30 or more points) unavailable for the fourth time overall and the first time since Nov. 2, Faried and Tucker posted double-doubles while Eric Gordon and Chris Paul combined for 48 points and 21 assists in the backcourt. The Rockets' lauded depth came through when needed.
"It's good and well but we've got to just keep putting it together," said Paul, whose season-high 17 assists upped his career total past 9,000, making Paul just the eighth player in league history to reach that benchmark. "The guys came here and won without me and then we won without James, but we'd be fooling ourselves to say we can win it all without him. For us, it's about continuing to build."
The Hawks immediately applied the lessons learned from a difficult loss to the Detroit Pistons on Friday in their 120-112 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, executing down the stretch to salvage the finale of a seven-game homestand that encompassed the All-Star break.
Atlanta finished 2-5 during that stretch. Unable to hold on late against the Pistons, the Hawks remained composed against the Suns, responding ably on offense when Phoenix attempted to steer rookie point guard Trae Young off the ball and force others to deliver under duress.
"What we needed was a great finish and in the fourth quarter we got to the free-throw line 21 times, and to me, that's finishing," Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. "We were aggressive, we were moving the basketball, we put pressure (on their defense). They were trying to blitz Trae in a lot of pick-and-rolls and our guys stayed together and that was important for us, especially after (Friday's) loss."
The Hawks improved to 3-5 in the second game of a back-to-back, and their incremental progress this season is obvious. The Rockets will present a unique challenge for Atlanta defensively, but on the heels of two white-knuckle finishes, thoughts of Houston were delayed.
"We have a day off (Sunday)," Pierce said with a grin.
--Field Level Media
Updated February 24, 2019