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Rockets 123, Knicks 112: “All things considered, this wasn’t a bad blowout”

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85 days till the lottery.

NBA: New York Knicks at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

6.62607004 × 10-34 m2 kg / s.

Know what that is? Planck’s Constant. Know what that is? Doesn’t matter. Know what else is constant? The Rockets owning the Knicks. Houston’s 123-112 win last night made it 24 wins in their last 27 tries against our good-time Charlies. It’s weird: the final score doesn’t indicate how quickly this game felt over, but the floodgates, perhaps a bit rusty, didn’t really open till late. The game wasn’t really competitive or non-competitive. It was the soul of every Knicks/Rockets game, multiplied over 48 minutes.

If Houston were rusty, they had reason to be. James Harden, Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker were all in Los Angeles earlier in the day for Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s memorial service before flying to Houston for the game. Westbrook didn’t play, apparently due to a sore thumb. If Harden had sat too, this could have been a good game, even with the Knicks missing Elfrid Payton (sore ankle), Frank Ntilikina (world’s sexiest injured groin) and Kadeem Allen (concussion). That meant turning the clock back a year ago and turning the reins over to Dennis Smith Jr.

Speaking of turning back the clock, the shot clocks weren’t working above the backboard, so the teams played with the clocks on the ground by the baseline corners. Another blast from the past: FARTDOG. Houston was dribble penetrating at will against any and all Knick defenders. Harden, Robert Covington, Eric Gordon: it didn’t matter. He who had the rock had a clear path to the basket, over and over and over and over and over and over again. The Knicks were trying an interesting defense where they essentially draped themselves over Harden’s left arm. I imagine the thinking there was to force him right, away from his dominant hand. I imagine forcing him right was supposed to be accompanied by some sort of defensive mindfulness. Thing is, the Knick defenders looked more like they were chaperoning his drives than contesting them.

The first quarter was a fun watch. Styles make the fight: the Knicks started an entire frontcourt bigger than the Rockets’ biggest (Tucker) or tallest player (Covington), and they were clearly trying to boss the paint early, whereas Houston had acres of open space for their offense to work with. RJ Barrett had his best quarter as a pro, netting 14 points along with four rebounds and three assists.

Remember those numbers. They’ll come up again later in the quiz.

It all went to hell in the second. The nominees for this game’s canary in the coal mine:

  • Bobby Portis had Eric Gordon on his back, 15 feet from the hoop. Portis has seven inches on Gordon. He took an entry pass and immediately put up a fadeaway that missed. Not long after that, Portis’ “defense” made DeMarre Carroll look like Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • The Rockets hit nine of their first 15 three-pointers. Some of Harden’s were literally unguardable.
  • Despite Julius Randle being bigger than anyone the Rockets played, the Knicks showed virtually no inclination to post him up.
  • After Barrett’s tremendous opening quarter, he pretty much wasn’t allowed to touch the ball in the second.

Those things all sucked. What didn’t and doesn’t suck = Mitchell Robinson. My favorite sequence of the night was when he dashed from the weakside corner to the paint to put the kibosh on a Harden drive, then raced back to the corner when the Beard dished it to Tucker, who was seemingly open. But you know Mitch:

Shortly after, Robinson picked up his third foul wastefully bumping Ben McLemore off a screen. The Knicks were down 56-49 when he sat. On the very next possession Harden drove straight to the cup and laid it in, two of his 31 first-half points. After Mitch sat Houston closed the half on a 16-8 run and entered the break with 72 points. The Knicks have been fifth in the league in defensive rating over the past month. But the Rockets are a different animal, especially with Frank and Payton out.

The third quarter was its own constant. The Rockets mostly led by 12-15. New York’s best bright spot was a tough Randle post-up followed by Moe Harkless stealing the inbounds and Reggie Bullock draining a three to pulled the Knicks within 9, 86-77. Austin Rivers scored his team’s last nine points of the third to restore the lead to 15.

Your Goofus and Gallant binary: Portis and Mitch. One third quarter sequence featured seven seconds of dribbling nihilism by Portis, followed by a lousy pass to Smith that led to a turnover and a Gordon three-point play. On a night the Knicks were shorthanded and needed big performances across the board, Portis came up smaller than micropenis.

Mitch, on the other hand, never stopped hustling on either end, even with the Knicks down 20 in the 4th. Whether crashing the offensive glass or running around like a headless chicken seemingly contesting entire possessions single-handedly, you would have thought this was the fourth quarter of Game 7 in the ‘94 Finals rather than garbage time in 2020.

The only surprise in the fourth was Harden staying in the game as late as he did, especially after banging into DSJ and looking like he may have injured his knee. I miss the days of worrying whether your MVP-caliber star should sit earlier in blowouts. Instead I’m in a world where I can honestly exclaim minutes before tip-off “Kadeem Allen’s out too? Crap!”

Notes:

  • Harden, for all his brilliance, is not well-loved by the general public. Perhaps one reason why, fair or not, is that unlike Michael Jordan or Kobe, who frequently hit shots that looked difficult, shots other players wouldn’t dare try, there’s no context to ground Harden’s aesthetic. His success seems irrespective of defense or degree of difficulty. In this game he was either pulling up from deep or driving past somebody and throwing up seemingly uncontested floaters and lay-ups. It’s not his fault that defenses are so concerned about his threes that they overplay out high and leave the driving lanes so wide open. His skill and success earned him that. It’s a credit to his mastery of his craft. Strictly aesthetically, it doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t look like something you know you couldn’t do.
  • Clyde mentioned Houston’s November game vs. Atlanta, a night Harden scored 60 in three quarters and had nearly as many points with 5:00 left in the third as the Hawks. That is Ruthian, Gretzkyian, Wilt-level ish.
  • Harden and Westbrook are on pace to be the first teammates ever to each average 25/7/7 over a season.
  • Clyde Frazier drew an interesting parallel between Mike D’Antoni and Andy Reid as great coaches whose reps were unfairly dimmed by never winning a title. If Robert Horry doesn’t hip-check Steve Nash in 2007 and the Suns rather than the Spurs went on to win the title? With a ring under his belt and a playing style that revolutionized the pro game, D’Antoni would be legendary. Or maybe just respected enough to not get dropped for Mike Woodson. Best believe I’m still pissed.
  • DSJ put up 15/7/5 and a career-high seven steals. He was also a -19. Now I dunno what to make of one-game individual plus/minus ratings. Randle was somehow a +3, and Allonzo Trier’s +12 looks great in the box score but means little if you watched the game. I do know if Ntilikina ever put up a line like that, even if he were -19, y’all’d be looking like Randy Marsh after he saw that “spooky ghost.”
  • I literally don’t think the Knicks ran one play for Barrett after his first quarter.
  • I’m less bothered by Randle than a lot of people here seem to be. But tonight was a sad showing for the Big Apple Turnover. Some astonishingly asinine dribbling and turnovers, as well as defensive sequences where he failed to rotate on cats driving the lane like he had on cinder block shoes. Taj Gibson did the same on one defensive possession; maybe the Knicks’ strategy was to stay at home on the three-point shot even if it meant giving up free layups?
  • The story goes that the great composer and pianist Robert Schumann ruined his strong hand for piano, his right hand, after creating a device that held back one finger while the other four exercised. He was already on track to become a concert pianist, but his pursuit of perfection cost him good enough. In that same vein: do Knox’s three-pointers have too much arc? He’s down to 32% from deep and his shots keep getting more and more rainbow. If he changed his shot with some end-goal in mind, it doesn’t look to be getting any closer to fruition.
  • Knox took a pass with the Knicks pushing up the floor, drove more than 10 feet toward a stationary and clearly-outside-the-restricted-area Danuel House Jr. and just barreled into him. Offensive foul. I’m starting to get Kenny Walker vibes when I watch Knox play. Is it too early to say such a thing? It is. Does that make the feeling any less real? Nope. Both were Knick lottery picks from Kentucky whose first names start with “K” and who have a “K” in their last names, too, so clearly this theory holds water.
  • Late in the game Mitch had Harden on his back, down in the paint. Damyean Dotson lobbed an entry pass that may have been thrown directly at the defender; Harden stole it easily. The Knicks haven’t been able to get a post pass in to Mitch all season. A lot of the ‘90s Knicks struggled with entry passes to Patrick Ewing. That may be the first and last time all season you hear these Knicks compared to those.
  • About a minute after Portis missed a three from the top of the arc, he hit a long-two from just inside the same spot. We hear that’s a bad shot. I’m wondering if that could change over time. If the three-ball becomes more normative, to the point that more and more players are shooting it more and more often, could a 19-footer become more of a lay-up (figuratively)? Next time you’re on a court, take a bunch of shots from the same spot, then move about four feet in and shoot. Four feet is a big difference.
  • Mike Breen is my hero for calling out DSJ for something more and more players are doing. The Knicks inbounded with about two seconds left in the first quarter, down three. Smith dribbled juuuuust enough so that the buzzer sounded juuuuust before he threw up a halfcourt Hail Mary. What that’s about? Why be so worried about your shooting percentage that you’re costing your team shots at points? Basketball-reference keeps track of “heaves.” I’m sure league statisticians do, too. You really think the handful of heaves you toss up each season gonna cost millions on your next contract? He did it again at the end of the third; Breen again voiced frustration.
  • Nine points in six mop-out minutes for Trier.
  • Jeff Green has always been a kinda meh player. Like, he’s had a better than average career, especially when you consider he recovered from open-heart surgery for an aortic root aneurysm. But he’s never been a needle-mover for any team. However, even at 33, dude got hops.

He almost threw down an epic slam over Mitch.

Don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy stare another down for simply drawing a foul, but you do you, Jeff.

  • The officiating had literally zero to do with the outcome of this game. Now that that’s out of the way: the officials blew literally a half-dozen calls. Blatant, mortifying mistakes. If these officials were players, they’d be benched next game and sweating a demotion to the G-League.
  • Trading Marcus Morris for Moe Harkless does not make the Knicks a better team this year. It does make them a more handsome team. And I say that with full cognizance that Morris is a fine-looking man.
  • Earlier this year the Rockets became the first team since 1963 to play consecutive games without a player over 6’6”. I just think that’s neat.
  • In the first half Harden blatantly shoved DSJ to the ground and then hit a three. The crowd, naturally, went wild. The franchises I hate the most in sports are the Philadelphia Flyers, the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics. Yet the fan base I resent above all others has gotta be Houston fans. From Mike Scott scuffing the ball in the 1986 NLCS against the Mets to the punchably hateable Roger Clemens/Andy Pettite teams to the current cheating douches, from the Rockets breaking my heart in the 1994 Finals to stealing Jeremy Lin away to nowadays trying to flatten basketball into a word problem, that city’s fans eat it up and root for more. They remind me of the cops in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
  • Is there a better sports uniform colors match-up than red versus blue? In the ‘80s that was Giants vs. Washington or, one magical October, Mets vs. Red Sox. In the ‘90s it was Knicks vs. Bulls. This century it’s been Manchester City vs. Manchester United.
  • Clyde said LeBron James is not on his NBA Mount Rushmore. He named Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and couldn’t settle on Oscar Robertson, Jerry West or Michael Jordan. James, he says, is on “the next tier.” What if he’s right? He’s seen all those players up close, been courtside for 50+ years. What if Clyde knows better, and LeBron is closer to top-ten than GOAT?
  • Help me with this: a lotta nights I’m up till 2 or 3 in the morning finishing recaps. I do it ‘cuz I figure enough people out there are morning people who wanna be able to read about the game as soon as they wanna read about it. If I wait till morning to write them, there are quotes and tidbits that may have come out overnight, as well as the perk of not being up till 2-3.

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Quoth Russ: “All things considered, this wasn’t a bad blowout.” It really wasn’t. In no way was it good, either. This was when you gotta fight someone for whatever reason, and you know they’re gonna kick your ass but you have to fight, and at best you hope you can make them feel like they’ve been in a fight. I don’t think Houston feels like they were. Next game is Wednesday in Charlotte. Come see the Knicks pick on someone their own size!