LOS ANGELES -- For a short flash, it almost appeared as if the play was dead.
Deked by James Harden's patented, left-to-right crossover "hop-back" on the left wing, LA Clippers forward Wesley Johnson slipped on a banana peel and fell backward to the hardwood on his tuchus with just over a minute remaining in the first quarter. As Johnson recovered a full 10 feet in front of Harden with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, the Houston Rockets' guard paused. He wasn't checking the placement of his toes or scanning the floor for a cutter -- it was obvious where the Rockets' shot would materialize.
Harden then actually took his shooting hand off the ball as he stood stationary, as if to casually admire the humiliation that had ensued.
"I was just trying to figure out what he was doing," Harden said. "I was going to shoot it, but I was waiting to see, to figure out what was going on. I was confused. Like did the ref call side out of bounds?"
Still surrounded by open space, Harden toggled back to the task at hand. He placed his left hand back on the ball as Clippers guard Milos Teodosic scampered toward him for a half-hearted close-out attempt, then Hadren launched a silky jumper that put the Rockets up 31-7.
"It was a great move," Rockets teammate Eric Gordon said. "Of course, it was crazy. You don't see things like that all the time. I definitely laughed. Everybody is going to be talking about that for a while."
The lead would narrow to as little as eight points, but the Rockets held off a scrappy Clippers squad to prevail 105-92 at Staples Center and notch their 14th consecutive win. In the process, Houston, now 48-13, maintained its half-game lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference standings.
Wednesday night wasn't a flawless exhibition of Rockets basketball. About an hour after Harden's conquest, coach Mike D'Antoni marched onto the floor and lit into his team, which had coughed up a 15-3 run during a string of four possessions featuring three careless turnovers.
The Rockets have been playing at the league's slowest pace over the course of their month-long winning streak, an almost unthinkable statistic for a team coached by D'Antoni and assembled by general manager Daryl Morey. But this improbable feature underscores how dangerous the Rockets are as currently constituted.
"We're not just winning one way," Harden said. "We're winning a variety of ways. That's what it's going to take in the postseason."
For most NBA teams, a brisk pace against a backpedaling defense that isn't set helps players find quality shots. The Rockets' offensive ingenuity is their uncanny ability, demonstrated over the past month, that they can rely on the more deliberate pick-you-apart inclinations of Chris Paul and Harden, and still find their sensible diet of 3-pointers, point-range shots at the rim and regular trips to the foul line.
During the streak, Houston has ranked third in quantified shot probability, a metric by Second Spectrum that measures the likelihood of a shot going down when taking into account both the shot quality and the shooter. And though isolation basketball traditionally has been anathema to teams coached by D'Antoni, whose coaching mantra is "the ball finds energy," the Rockets are far and away the most iso-reliant team in the NBA -- and by far the most efficient with 1.12 points per direct isolation play. (No other team in the league has scored even better than 1.00 per direct iso during the streak.)
True to form, the Rockets attempted only four field goal attempts outside the key but inside the arc on Wednesday, with Harden attempting zero. He finished with an efficient, workmanlike 25 points on 7-for-14 shooting from the field (including 3-of-10 from deep), going 8-for-9 from the stripe.
Harden disrespects Johnson with dirty crossover
James Harden makes Wesley Johnson fall down, then waits for him to get up, before he pulls up for a 3-pointer to extend the Rockets' lead.
Also true to recent form, the Rockets and Clippers played at a plodding 95-possession (unofficial) pace on Wednesday night. Yet the Rockets still are opportunistic, if a bit more selective, about their octane. Witness a leak-out in the fourth quarter by center Clint Capela, whom Paul hit directly in the hands with a pretty pass-ahead for a jam on the break to reestablish a 15-point lead. These were only two of 22 fast-break points for the Rockets, who gave up only six to the Clips on the other end.
"We created a lot of opportunities with our defense," Harden said. "Offensively, we can score. That's not the problem. Defensively, when we're able to communicate and move our bodies and help each other out, we're on another level."
Gordon, who played in his first game since Feb. 13 after a nasty bout with food poisoning, looked a tad thinner in the face. But after shaking off a thin layer of rust, he was pivotal in stemming the Clippers' run, draining two 3-pointers from 30 feet. He finished with 22 points on a night when a number of Rockets regulars struggled from the field. Paul was off with his shot (3-for-12 from the field for eight points) but logged a game-high eight assists and game best plus-21, with dogged defense on the Clippers' ineffective guards.
Naturally, before the game both teams downplayed the incident that marred their last meeting at Staples on Jan. 15. Following a spirited Clippers win that featured plenty of extracurricular activity, Trevor Ariza led a platoon of Rockets players through the back channels of the arena's event level into the Clippers' locker room to confront Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin.
While Wednesday's game featured plenty of intensity, the remnants of the January tilt seemed remote. The Clippers have been completely reconstituted, with Griffin now playing for Detroit. Though the Clippers made a second-half run, the game was never competitive enough to warrant any elevated testosterone.
When the Rockets returned the visitors locker room after the win, they found the back door that was the conduit to the January fracas barred with several strips of bright yellow caution tape, the handiwork of the team's equipment manager, Tony Nila.
The players enjoyed a good laugh -- an amusing closure for an embarrassing event. A month later, the Rockets clearly look like a team with far more profound goals than settling scores or emotional day-trading. They appear serious about the business of integrating new pieces such as Joe Johnson, finding the right shots for a complement of talent that will need to win both fast and slow, big and small, from deep and inside, with the ball and defending it. Right now, they're excelling in any and all of these contexts.