Rockets take aim on the King and his Cavaliers

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HOUSTON — Blonde, buxomy cheerleaders were dancing and shaking in a line, each wearing a sprawling black beard designed to match the one grown by James Harden, whose name is increasingly associated with the letters M-V-P.   Houstonians packed and rattled the Toyota Center, excited to make a stand before a national television audience.

On a beclouded Sunday the basketball gods gifted us one of those heavenly match-ups you rarely see in NBA arenas in March.  The emotion-fueled Rockets hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers, hottest, most confident team in the league, and led by LeBron James, universally acknowledged as Basketball’s Greatest Player.

At the All-Star break the MVP buzz was more about the whirling yet silky-smooth Stephen Curry, Golden State point guard who ranks high in key stats and analytics at Plus 465 and such.  But as the Cavs continued a powerful 20-game run (18-2), the NBA star having the most visible impact was LeBron James.

Finally healthy and clicking with a team that’s been almost entirely rebuilt during the past eight months, he’s bigger, stronger, lengthier than Harden or Curry, able to take over a game in a complete way nobody else can.

In the past, the Rockets treated LeBron with respect and awe, as if he were in fact King James.  They would never have kicked him.  Especially not THERE.   Who woulda thought someone on this quiet, docile team would go all Ndamukong Suh?  Clearly, these are not the stand-back, turn-the-other-cheek pacifists you knew the Rockets to be.

Gone are the pretty Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lins.  A year ago the Rockets had only one player, Patrick Beverley, who’d scare you if you bumped into him in a dark alley.

Now they have others you don’t want to confront.  Hello, Corey Brewer, Terrence Jones.  Excuse me, Trevor Ariza.  Josh Smith, since when did you become a thief and a muggerYou’re supposed to be as tough as linguini.

Most shockingly of all, as LeBron would learn painfully, even Harden can be fierce.  The Cavs found all that out on their way to a 105-103 loss in overtime.

This was not so much a basketball game as a brawl.  It was frightfully misplaced on a Sunday afternoon.  You did not want your small children to see it.  It was a street fight instigated by an angry mob with a chip on the shoulder that resembled a granite slab.

The Rockets felt undervalued — insulted, dismissed by the Chuckster and the hucksters, hardly ever mentioned in mainstream media as a title contender despite winning 69 percent of the time.  No trust in Harden as a leader, Dwight Howard as a shooter, Beverley as a point guard, Kevin McHale as a coach, Daryl Morey as a GM.

But against LeBron the Rockets were a relentless swarm of arms and hands, and not a few elbows.  He calmly fended off the barrage most of the time.  It was often the Rockets who were the more frustrated team.

As when their own Mr. MVP, a/k/a The Beard, was lying on the floor in the third quarter and kicked his toes into the groin of a standing James.

Needless to say, a difficult and delicate item for discussion in a postgame locker room.  Maybe best that nobody provided details.  The refs had called it a flagrant foul but, curiously, did not eject Harden.  Perhaps they saw this foulest of shots not quite connecting in the murky folds of long baggy shorts.

Or they felt somewhat guilty themselves, for allowing the game to trend increasingly violent.  With whistles too silent, someone’s going to cross the line.  Then again, this sort of rough play is not so different from what’s to come in the postseason.

Ariza, who shadowed James for most of the game, said it was “as close to a playoff atmosphere that I’ve played in since the playoffs.”  Holding up to this physical and emotional stress, even if at home, bodes well for Houston’s postseason.

The Rockets’ all-over assault distracted ever so slightly the most reliable of athletes.  How else to explain James missing eight of 11 free throws?  In the clutchest moments – 4.2 seconds left in overtime – he clanked two when he could have put his team ahead.

“I just never caught a rhythm,” he said, not quite conceding the Rockets kept him from it.  He put up numbers: 37 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 blocked shots.  But his shooting was off, at 42 percent.  “I didn’t come through for my teammates,” James said.  “It won’t happen again.”

It might.  His misfires at the line with the game on it emphasized the one flaw in his arsenal.  He’s a 74% free-throw shooter, compared to 85% for Harden.

As for The Incident, Harden afterward sounded unrepentant (“It’s a reaction”).  James also had little to say, but it was considered a good sign there was not an ice pack in his lap.  He promised “the league will look into it,” and of course it did.

Harden’s low blow led to a one-game suspension:  Tuesday at Atlanta, home of the Eastern Conference’s best team outside of Ohio.  The Rockets lost by 8, and you have to think Harden could have made a difference.

Meanwhile we’re left pondering the significance of Sunday’s home-cooked victory.  Face it, if the King’s manhood had been jeopardized in Cleveland, Harden is outta there.  For his own protection.

It should be noted that both teams lacked their No. 2 player, the Cavs minus the dashing point guard Kyrie Irving and the Rockets missing — or maybe not — their enigmatic defensive bulwark, Dwight Howard, out with a swollen knee.

Truth is the Rockets play about as well without Howard as with him and about as often.  You keep thinking his towering middle and low presence – as opposed to non-presence — will make them better overall. Yeah, I know, the Lakers thought that also, for a while.

Is it his 40% free-throw conversion that knocks the entire Houston offense off stride?  If there was one statement from Sunday’s game, it’s the value of free-throw accuracy.

So what did that game tell us about MVP?  Not so much.  We saw both LeBron and Harden (33 points) at their best and worst.

The question with James at 30 is durability.  He’s looking to reduce his minutes, while Harden wants more, refusing to sit out a game with a sprained ankle.

Suddenly the Rockets look assertive, with their annoyingly off-tempo coach, McHale, unexpectedly sharpening his game.  They insist the true King James is Harden, the most consistently fine full-court, two-way player of this NBA season. Yes, for the first time in his life – and let’s keep in mind he’s only 25 – he’s in your face on defense.  If not in your crotch.  We can wonder what the enduring image of his season will be.

MVP is more than stats or analytics.  A superb team performance is essential, the assumption being an MVP inspires and facilitates. The Most Valuable Player is, more than anyone, The Face of the NBA.  So voters consider what sort of public figure he is, how he represents and leads his team.  And how he repents for his misconduct.  A heartfelt apology, sooner the better, might be good for Harden’s MVP outlook.






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