James Harden

The Houston Rockets are still playing without Dwight Howard and his banged up knee, but that isn’t stopping them or from James Harden from doing very well, carrying on with their successful ways in a 105-96 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Howard has missed the last seven games, in which the Rockets have gone 5-2, now only half a game behind the Grizzlies in the West and 1.5 behind the Warriors. Harden scored 21 points, leading a group of six players in double figures, with the Rockets doing an excellent job of remaining a very good defensive team and plugging in players as the point guards next to Harden (Patrick Beverley, Isaiah Canaan) keep dropping like flies.

Harden, averaging 25 points, 6.6 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game is doing quite well with the added offensive responsibility since Howard’s knee problems (and maybe it has something to do with his legal problems as well) began. He upped his scoring average by two points while looking a lot more responsible defensively, probably knowing that there’s no choice but to buckle down and actually make an effort. Lo and behold, when Harden tries, he’s not that bad of a defender.

Jason Terry started in the backcourt next to Harden, showing that with minutes and confidence, he still has a lot of basketball left in him, scoring 16 points. Trevor Ariza was a bit too easy on the trigger, hitting only 6-of-18 shots en route to 16 points, with his defense often making up for his bad offensive performances. Donatas Motiejunas scored 15 points as he continues to fill in for Terrence Jones, another lineup member gone injured, while Kostas Papanikolaou added 14 points off the bench, carrying on with being a pleasant rookie surprise.

For Memphis, it was one of those games in which nothing worked. They did shoot well from the field, but turned the ball over 20 times. The moment you force the Grizzlies to defend a lot of transition possessions instead of half court, you take away their greatest strength, as the Rockets scored 25 points on the fast break. The game ran away from them in the third quarter, and even though Memphis outscored the Rockets by 17 points in the fourth, it never really became a close game.

The more the Rockets do well without Howard, Jones and one of their starting point guards the more they seem like a team that’s more ready than ever to contend for a championship. It should be that way, but early on in the season there doesn’t seem to be any clear favorite. The addition of Ariza to the lineup has turned the Rockets, at least statistically, into one of the best defensive teams in the league while Harden, not always at his most efficient, seems to have done the right kind of growing up over the summer, making him a much better fit as the team’s number one player this season.

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