After months of speculation concerning James Hardens desire to be traded, back to back losses at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers this week seem to have finally led to just that. Houston traded Harden yesterday to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Caris LeVert and 3 unprotected 1st round picks. Tensions had been brewing for awhile, ultimately coming to a head when Harden effectively threw the organization under the bus to reporters after the 2nd loss to LA:
James Harden asked if hes surprised the #Rockets didnt make a run: Were just not good enough..Chemistry, talent-wise, everything. Its clear..I love this city Ive literally done everything that I can..Its crazy. Its something that I dont think can be fixed. pic.twitter.com/1bbfrytyUjMark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) January 13, 2021
This clashes entirely with the place San Antonio finds itself in. Standing at 6-5 on the year and coming off a 4-1 road trip that included wins against 3 playoff teams from last season, the blending of the youth movement with the teams elder statesmen is finally starting to show signs harmony. They may not win the championship this year (jury is still out!), but the foundation is clearly there for their future to be just as bright as their past has been.
Tonights game is the first of two match-ups with Houston this week, both from within the confines of the AT&T Center. While the talking points leading up to these games will largely focus on Harden and the drama in Houston, the Spurs can ill-afford not to take advantage of a team that seems to be in complete disarray from the top down in their quest to make it back to the postseason.
Spurs Injuries: Quinndary Weatherspoon (Out Knee), Derrick White (Out Toe), Drew Eubanks (Out COVID Protocol), DeMar DeRozan (questionable)
Rockets Injuries: Brodic Thomas (OUT), Danuel House Jr. (OUT), Chris Clemons (OUT)
Since being traded to Houston before the start of the 2012-2013 season, the Rockets have played just 34 games without Harden. Hes built his entire reputation being the ball-dominant crafty scorer that he is in Houston, in a sense setting the tone for the entire organization. Everything there, from the moves of the front office all the way down to the style of play, has been centered around Harden. He is their identity.
What are they now, then, and more importantly, what is their identity on the court? A look at the roster reveals a closer look into why Harden wanted out in the first place. DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall are the two biggest names on the roster other than Harden and both have suffered career debilitating injuries that have sapped them of who they once were. Eric Gordon is still there and PJ Tucker too, but outside of that, the roster is pretty barren.
Houstons current identity crisis, especially in the first game, should make the Spurs at least a bit wary of them. Theres always the chance that, chips on their shoulders, the remaining members of the Rockets come out ready to prove a point and have their best game of the season up to this point. One of the great Popovich quotes talks about having, appropriate fear, of the opponent and that is a lesson the Spurs could very well take away with them tonight.
With DeMar DeRozan missing the last two games for personal reasons, Lonnie Walker IV seemed to take it upon himself to fill the void. He scored 25 points in the second game against the Timberwolves before being forced to exit early due to leg cramps, but came right back the next night with 24 more to lead San Antonio over the Thunder in the final game of a 5-game road trip. In both of those games, Walker played with the confidence and aggression that fans have long clamored to see ever since the young guard was drafted a few summers ago and especially after what many though would be his breakout game against this same Rockets organization last season
The stat that jumps out from Walkers box scores the last two nights? His free throw attempts. Averaging just a single free throw attempt per game on the season, Walker found his way to the line 13 times over the last two games (6 and 7 attempts, respectfully). On display was a willingness to smartly force action and a desire to get to the paint for a variety of finishes that highlighted the youngsters natural athleticism.
Walker has all the talent and tools to be a serious on-ball problem for opposing teams on a nightly basis, he just needs to flex it a bit more even alongside other ball-dominant scoring threats going forward. Who knows, maybe that 2-game stretch was his REAL coming out party.
For the Rockets fans perspective, visit The Dream Shake.
PtRs Gamethread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtRs Twitter feed.