The Houston Rockets advancing to Round 2 started to feel like a foregone conclusion somewhere between the fifth and 53rd Josh Smith-to-Dwight Howard alley-oop in the second half of Game 2, and became all but inevitable after James Harden put the finishing touches on a 42-point performance in Game 3. With the short, strange Rajon Rondo trip at an end, key secondary scorer and playmaker Chandler Parsons out for the series (and maybe much, much longer) and the Rockets absolutely decimating Dallas' pick-and-roll coverages, it seemed like ...
Well, I guess it seemed like this thing that the Rockets tweeted and then deleted late in the fourth quarter of Tuesday's Game 5:
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Pretty weird, off-putting and inappropriately intense, Rockets — hence the quick-fast deletion — and certainly not appreciated by the Mavericks:
... which, naturally, prompted this hurried apology:
... but also, y'know, not wrong.
After spotting the Mavs a home-court win in Game 4, the Rockets closed Dallas out at Toyota Center on Tuesday, scoring a 103-94 win that earned them a 4-1 win in their best-of-seven series. Houston advances to the conference semifinals for the first time since 2009, and will take on the winner of the matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. Dirk Nowitzki and company head home, having now logged three consecutive one-and-done playoff appearances since their 2011 championship run.
After struggling to connect from long distance in Game 4, making just two of their 22 3-point tries through three quarters in Sunday's loss, Houston opened up 5-for-10 from long distance on Tuesday and finished with a better (if still sluggish by their standards) 10-for-31 mark from outside.
James Harden led the way, making four of his eight long-ball tries en route to a game-high 28 points, including this huge 3-pointer after bumping back stalwart Mavericks defender Al-Farouq Aminu — one of the stars of Dallas' Game 4 win — to put Houston up eight with just under 2 1/2 minutes left to go:
Dallas, on the other hand, shot just 5-for-26 from 3-point range, with the legendary Nowitzki missing all six of his long-distance tries on an unfortunately timed rough shooting night that saw him score 22 points on an 8-for-23 mark from the field. He did pick things up in the second half after an ice-cold 2-for-11 start while adding a team-high 14 rebounds, but he just couldn't find the distance on Tuesday.
That, plus his struggles to check opposing four men Josh Smith and Terrence Jones, who combined 35 points on 13-for-23 shooting and 13 rebounds, helped the Rockets withstand a boatload of self-inflicted wounds — 21 turnovers leading to 27 Mavericks points, 17 missed free throws that only encouraged Dallas coach Rick Carlisle's penchant for intentional fouling Houston's sour-shooting bigs — and move on to Round 2.
Houston held a nine-point lead after the first, with Harden and Smith leading the way and the Rockets shooting 54.2 percent from the field as a team. The Mavs hung tight, though, thanks in large part to energetic play from Aminu and irrepressible guard Monta Ellis, who darted into passing lanes to disrupt lazy Rockets passes and take them the other way for buckets.
The pair combined for seven of Dallas' 10 first-half steals, fueling a robust turnover-based economy that saw the Mavs score 17 points off 15 Rockets miscues through the first two quarters. Combined with Houston missing nine of its first 12 free throws, the opportunistic defense was enough to overcome a 37.5 percent mark from the floor and just one 3-pointer in 13 tries, keeping Mark Cuban's crew within one possession into the final minute of the second quarter.
After an intentionally-fouled Smith missed the back end of a pair of free throws with 34.1 seconds remaining in the half, rookie big man Clint Capela soared in to grab the offensive rebound and kicked it right out to Harden, who stepped into and drilled a 3-pointer that gave Houston up 56-50 lead after two quarters.
Ellis rocketed out of halftime with five points in the first 35 seconds of the third quarter to cut Houston's lead to one. But the resurgent Howard steadied the Rockets, beating series-long nemesis Tyson Chandler with a face-up move for a reverse layup before grabbing an offensive rebound off a Harden miss and bringing the thunder with a very loud putback dunk:
Howard's paint presence and work on the glass helped key a 16-4 Rockets run spanning nearly 5 1/2 minutes of game time, extending Houston's lead to 14. Dallas would close the gap, though, as Carlisle's commitment to Hack-a-Howard paid dividends — Dwight missed five of eight free throws in the final 5:07 of the third — and the Houston offense went ice-cold, allowing the Mavs to draw within eight points after three.
Buckets from Nowitzki, Chandler and Ellis helped the Mavs cut into the lead early through the fourth. A jumper by J.J. Barea — who offered a huge boost off the bench through the first three games and made a big difference when moved to the starting lineup in Game — capped a 17-8 run that had Dallas within three, at 88-85, with 5:19 remaining. That was as close as Dallas would get, though.
After seeming to injure his right leg on a jump-stop on the trip that finished with Barea's jumper, Elis couldn't contain Rockets guard Jason Terry on the perimeter, leading to penetration that created a dump-off pass for Jones, who hit a layup through contact by Nowitzki. It was about as bad as the possession could've gone for Dallas — Ellis pulled up lame and had to leave the game, Dirk got his fifth foul, and Jones hit his free throw to double Houston's lead. Jones compounded the misery by drilling a corner 3 — his first made triple of the series — on the next Rockets trip to put Houston back up by nine with 4:26 remaining.
The Mavs hung around, but would never again threaten. That seems about as apt a summation as any for a series in which they lost their second-best offensive creator after one game, their hoped-for elite playoff point guard never showed up at all, their coach didn't really unleash their best chance at slowing down MVP candidate Harden (the long-armed Aminu) until four games into the series, and they just didn't have enough capable interior defenders to be able to deal with the likes of Howard (who finished with 18 points, 19 rebounds, four blocks and four steals in 38 1/2 minutes) and the power forward tandem of Smith and Jones. Dallas mostly had Monta (a Dallas-high 25 points, seven assists, four rebounds, four steals) and a prayer that Dirk could turn back the clock. He couldn't do it to the degree the Mavs needed to tilt the series in their favor.
Whichever juggernaut emerges from the Spurs-Clips slugfest, Houston will face a steep increase in degree of difficulty when they enter Round 2. Kevin McHale will have to get Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry shooting straight again, will have to tighten up the sloppy ball-handling and passing that led to all those turnovers, and will have plenty of other items on his to-do list, I'm sure. Getting past Round 1, while important when you haven't done in a half-dozen years, doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot when you've got to line up against Chris Paul and Blake Griffin or Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan in a week's time.
But the second-seeded Rockets will have some time to rest, recover and game-plan; they'll still have home-court advantage; they'll still have one of the best scorers and facilitators in the world; and they'll still have one of the league's most effective pick-and-roll big men and shot deterrents. They've got enough to leave the ill-considered emoji snark behind and let the on-court product speak for itself.
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