Let’s Get Physical! (Rockets at Celtics; 02.29.20)

Yusuf Abdullah/ALOST


akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief


BOSTON — A bevy of long-range shots by the Houston Rockets were not falling on Saturday night against a fellow championship contender on the road, but they remained in the game because of PJ Tucker’s body continuing to fly around to keep plays alive.

Houston’s headline player could not buy a bucket for long stretches, but its most recent acquisition was able to make baskets — and erase them on the other end — during key stretches of the game.

We do not know just yet if the new Houston Rockets, who defeated the Boston Celtics 111-110 in overtime at TD Garden, are actually improved from this time last season, even with the acquisition of Russell Westbrook, who led Houston with 41 points tonight as James Harden was held to a pedestrian 21 points. What we can surmise from tonight, and from a number of other games this season, is that the “soft” and “finesse” labels that have been attached to a number of Mike D’Antoni’s teams, especially the one’s in H-Town, are slowly starting to melt away — and a layer of edginess and toughness might actually be taking its place.

The last five games for the Rockets, all victories, saw them score at least 120 points, but, even with an extra five minutes, Houston fell well short of that 120 number. However, it was the defensive end of the floor, including 6-foot-7 “center” Robert Covington — acquired in a four-team trade on Feb. 4 — blocking three shots and PJ Tucker making like a bowling ball rolling down a hill in grabbing five offensive rebounds in the second half, most of which eventually led to Houston points. Both of those players made life hard on Boston’s stars, including young superstar Jayson Tatum, who scored 32 points but went just 9-for-27 from the field.

Yes, this is the Houston Rockets we are talking about. The team whose general manager had openly admitted to obsessing over catching and passing the Golden State Warriors’ model of offensive efficiency and continuing a basketball reinvention has resorted to another way of winning basketball games: embracing the physical grind, a tactic that usually is a better indicator of potential championship glory.

“We have that ability to [win on the defensive end]. They’re starting to believe that, yeah, we can do it every time,” D’Antoni said. “Obviously it’s not going to work every time, and sometimes superstars like [Tatum] have off-games; it’s just the way it is. You can’t have that off-streak forever, but they’re a good team. To win the way we won, it’s good for us. We needed to win that one.”

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