The Dallas Mavericks emptied both barrels on Friday night, throwing every ounce of offensive firepower they had at the Houston Rockets in an attempt to overwhelm Kevin McHale's favored crew and fight their way back into their opening-round series. Unfortunately for Rick Carlisle and company, in this matchup, Houston's got the deadliest weapon.
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James Harden set a new career playoff high with 42 points (15-for-24 shooting, 5-for-7 from 3-point range, 7-for-7 from the foul line) to lead Houston to a 130-128 win over the Mavericks in Game 3 on Friday. The MVP candidate delivered the final two in the form of this step-back dagger from the left elbow over the outstretched arm of Dallas center Tyson Chandler to give Houston a three-point lead with 12 seconds left in a furious offensive affair:
After a tough running bank shot by Mavericks guard Monta Ellis over the defense of Houston big man Josh Smith drew Dallas within one with eight seconds remaining, the Mavs denied Harden the chance to make a clean catch on the inbounds pass, forcing the Rockets to inbound to reserve swingman Corey Brewer, whom Ellis fouled. Brewer split his two free throws, giving Dallas one more chance at a tie, or perhaps even a win.
With the Mavs for all intents and purposes needing one more bucket to save their season — no team in NBA history have ever come back from an 0-3 deficit — many fans and observers likely expected Carlisle to dial up something intended to get a look for the legendary Dirk Nowitzki. The 7-foot German had scored 16 points in the fourth quarter and 34 in the game, bouncing back beautifully from his struggles in Dallas' Game 2 loss. But Nowitzki's last touch would come in the form of catching Ellis' inbounds pass and giving it right back.
The Rockets switched the handoff, with wing defender Trevor Ariza tracking Nowitzki to the short corner and Smith once again drawing the assignment on Ellis. As the clock ticked down, Ellis drove right before crossing over to his left at the 3-point arc. He took one dribble to the top of the key, rose up and leaned back, creating enough space from Smith to get a good look and a clean release.
Ellis' shot, however, sailed right, clanging off the backboard and back out toward half-court as time expired, giving the Rockets a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven series and leaving Dallas just one loss away from elimination. The Rockets will have the opportunity to finish off a four-game sweep of their in-state rivals on Sunday.
It was a bitter end to what had been a sensational night for Ellis, who, like Harden, set a new career playoff high with 34 points on 15-for-25 shooting. He also added nine assists against just one turnover in a team-high 39 minutes, providing precisely the sort of playmaking boost that Dallas needed after losing starters Chandler Parsons and Rajon Rondo, and after watching Game 3 starter Raymond Felton hobble to the sidelines holding the back of his right leg three minutes into the game. (He'd later return, but went scoreless in 12 1/2 minutes, missing all three of his field goal attempts while grabbing four rebounds and dishing one assist.)
But while he'd given Mavericks fans new life mere seconds earlier by getting all the way to the basket against Smith's defense, his inability to cash in by pulling up from further away all but dashed Dallas' hopes:
Mavs season came down to a Monta midrange jumper.
— Jeff Caplan (@Jeff_Caplan) April 25, 2015
It's a testament to just how potent Ellis and Nowitzki were, though, that it even came down to one shot at the end.
The Rockets got just about everything they wanted offensively in the early going, generating good looks in the paint through penetration, whether off the pick-and-roll or by getting Harden into the middle of Dallas' matchup zone. After struggling with his shot through the first two games of the series, going just 9-for-28 from the floor, Harden opened up 4-for-4 from the floor, offering early signals that this was going to be his night.
Harden, who also finished with nine assists and five rebounds in 36 minutes, was far from the only Rocket getting clean looks. From Jason Terry driving past Charlie Villanueva directly through the heart of the Dallas defense for a layup to a slew of Houston bigs (Smith, Terrence Jones, rookie Clint Capela) taking dump-off passes for layups or trips to the foul line, Houston absolutely carved the Mavericks up to the tune of 64 percent shooting and 42 points.
Things would've gotten ugly early had the Rockets been able to stop Dallas at all. But Ellis, reserve guard Devin Harris (back in the lineup after missing Game 2 with a toe injury) and the interior combo of ex-Knicks Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire helped pace the Mavericks to red-hot 61 percent shooting of their own, leaving Houston holding just a six-point lead after 12 minutes.
After Dirk missed four of his first five shots, he got unstuck in the second, hitting an open 3 and a left-elbow jumper. Dallas took advantage of Houston's offense stagnating with Harden on the bench, ripping rebounds and pushing the pace, with J.J. Barea (who'd finish with 11 points, nine assists and six rebounds off the bench) marching to the basket and dropping dimes off his penetration, propelling the Mavs to a mid-second-quarter lead.
Monta picked it up from there, keeping his foot on the gas with drive after drive, making the Rockets look like they were standing still. To be fair, Houston did its fair share to invite the comparison, with little ball movement and even less player movement, struggling to get to the middle of the floor for pick-and-rolls and winding up setting for the sort of wing isolations that are anathema in their spread-the-floor, layups-and-3-pointers offensive scheme.
Less than 2 1/2 minutes after taking the lead on a Chandler dunk, Dallas pushed the lead to 10 on a driving Ellis layup, with the Mavericks seizing control of the game by forcing turnovers that allowed them to get out on the break:
The Mavericks were averaging 18.2 transition points per game coming into tonight. They passed that mark with 6:16 to go in the half.
— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) April 25, 2015
Just as he did in Game 1, though, Harden came through with a sneakily critical stretch just before halftime to steady the sputtering Rockets.
He got into the paint for a short runner with 59 seconds left. Then, he fed Smith for a dunk off a high screen-and-roll with 33 seconds left. Then, he muscled his way inside for a 10-footer with five seconds left in the frame, generating six points in less than a minute before intermission. Yes, Dallas' 72 first-half points were the most any Mavericks team has scored in a half of playoff ball since 2003, and the most Houston has given up in a playoff half since 1995, but Harden's little mini-run cut a 13-point deficit to seven heading into half, giving the Rockets something to build off heading into the third quarter, and seemingly priming Harden's pump for an explosion.
Harden scored 10 points in the first five minutes of the second half to put Houston back on top. He cracked the 30-point plateau on a step-back 20-footer just before the midpoint of the frame, which emboldened him to get to stirrin' it up:
With Harden dealing en route to 16 points in the third, Houston's rhythm and ball movement returned, producing drives to the tin and some corner 3-pointers for Brewer. On the other end, Dallas' offense finally started to slow down a bit; 27 points on 9-for-20 shooting and an 8-for-8 mark from the line isn't anything to sneeze at, of course, but after consecutive 36-point quarters, Houston was happy to take it, and carry a 101-99 lead into the final frame.
As you'd expect in a tight game with so much on the line, things got awful physical at the start of the fourth quarter. (A bit too physical for Carlisle's liking, as the coach made sure in his postgame press conference to decry a number of plays in the paint that were "not kosher" and call for the series to be played "within the rules.") The game-long interior shoving match between Chandler and Dwight Howard going from undercard to main event, as the Dallas big man fought to keep Howard off the boards — mostly unsuccessfully, as Howard tied a career high and a Rockets franchise playoff record with 26 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive glass — and Dwight continued to maul just about everyone in his path to the backboard.
While the referees largely let the war in the paint go unwhistled, they seemed eager to govern some of the ticky-tack stuff on the perimeter, with Dallas picking up four quick fouls early in the fourth as Houston opened the frame on a 7-2 run punctuated by the sort of Smith-to-Howard alley-oop that put Dallas away in Game 2. With Smith (who finished with 18 points, four assists and three rebounds) and Brewer (15 points, three rebounds) carrying the load, the Rockets extended their lead to nine with Harden resting on the bench until the 6:42 mark.
It seemed like no matter what Carlisle did — clogging up the Rockets' 4-5 pick-and-rolls by having Stoudemire, Al-Farouq Aminu and others really get physical with Howard's rolls, baiting Houston into attacking cross-matches like Ariza-on-Dirk and Jones-on-Ellis, intentionally fouling Capela and Howard, etc. — he just couldn't get inside the Rockets' reach to deliver the body blows they'd need to come back. So he handed the keys to his two best offensive players, going time and again to the Dirk-Monta two-man game and hoping they could make something magic happen.
They nearly did, scoring the Mavericks' last 20 points over the final 5:39, with Dallas drawing as close as one point twice — at 124-123, after a pair of Nowitzki free throws with 1:13 remaining, and at 127-126, after Dirk made all three of his freebies following an ill-advised foul by Harden on an off-balance 3-pointer, with 33 seconds left. Then Harden came up with a dagger, and Monta came up empty, and Houston found itself one win away from making the conference semifinals for the first time since 2009, and just the second time since Hakeem, Charles and Clyde took the court together.
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