HOUSTON – If ever you wanted a textbook example of what the new NBA is about, the Houston Rockets provided it Friday night.
They hit the small time. The really small time.
The Rockets became the first team in more than half a century to play an NBA game with nobody on the court taller than 6-6.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, it had been 57 years to the day – Jan. 31, 1963 – since the New York Knicks played with nobody taller than 6-6 against the Chicago Zephyrs.
You know it’s a long time ago when the team has moved twice since then. The Zephyrs are now the Washington Wizards.
These days, it’s surprising it doesn’t happen more often given the way the NBA is going.
The Mavericks tried to combat the Rockets and did a commendable job of exploiting small ball at times, but in the end, Houston had too much Russell Westbrook, too much James Harden and too much 3-point shooting.
It added up to a 128-121 Rockets’ win as the Mavericks played their first of what will be at least six games without superstar Luka Doncic (sprained right ankle).
The Mavericks tried to prove that size matters. And with a fair number of Maverick fans dotting the Toyota Center, they made a nice comeback from 18 points down in the third quarter. They got as close as 107-104 midway through the fourth. They still were within 121-117 with 1:40 to go, but Harden’s 3-pointer and two free throws late iced it.
The win pushed Houston into sole possession of fifth place in the Western Conference with a 30-18 record. The Mavericks fell to 29-19 and return home for the second half of back-to-back games Saturday against Atlanta.
It doesn’t seem to matter who Westbrook plays for, he always seem to carve up the Mavericks. He did so with Oklahoma City for many years. And he did it again Friday with 32 points, nine assists and six rebounds for the Rockets. And Harden was right with him, rolling up 35 points and 16 rebounds.
The Rockets hit 21-of-45 3-pointers (46.7 percent). Combeind with 17 turnovers by the Mavericks, that was enough to sabotage a season-best 35 points to go with 12 rebounds by Kristaps Porzingis.
“It’s crazy. It’s the NBA of today – mismatches and a lot of trying to open the floor,” Porzingis said. “They’re good at what they do. It was an interesting matchup.
“We were right there with a chance. We fought our way back, twice. We kept playing hard to the end. We all feel like we got to step up with Luka out.”
Indeed, in the first of what will be at least six games without Luka Doncic, the Mavericks scrapped well and went with an odd lineup themselves, although it was a lot more traditional than what the Rockets utilized.
Carlisle turned to the shortest guy the Mavericks have (J.J. Barea) and somebody who’d never started an NBA game, Ryan Broekhoff. Of course, it kind of fit right in with the theme of the night.
And the Mavericks did what they needed to do in some respects. They won the rebounding game convincingly (52-37) but they could never figure out how to chase the Rockets off the 3-point line.
“Our guys hung in, fought,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I loved the way they got the thing down to three and we really had a chance. In the end, the threes got us. And it’s hard fighting an uphill battle and getting back after being down 16 or 18.”
The bottom line was that the Rockets did what they do just a little better than the Mavericks did what they do. But everybody agreed it was weird seeing the Rockets use such a small lineup. The absence of center Clint Capela precipitated it.
“The Rockets were small, but they did a great job,” said Barea, who had nine assists to go with 11 points in 21 minutes. “I wanted Capela in, for my game. But they did a good job. We fought. We never quit. They made some shots at the end that hurt us.”
As Broekhoff said: “The NBA’s changed, hasn’t it? They do a great job of switching and it took some time to adjust, but I thought we handled it generally pretty well. They had some fantastic plays putting up points. They’re a tough team to play at both ends of the floor.”
Especially on a night when they prove that size doesn’t matter.