The Toronto Raptors managed to hold NBA scoring leader James Harden mostly in check on Thursday night.
But Harden’s teammates stepped up in a major way, allowing Houston to exit Canada with a victory.
Ben McLemore hit a career-best eight three-pointers, P.J. Tucker added five and the Rockets nailed 22 treys in all in the 119-109 win.
The Raptors were all over Harden right from the start, sending two players aggressively at him on every touch and it completely threw the Rockets off. Houston had six early turnovers. But the Rockets were on fire from deep, nailing seven of 15 three-pointers in the first quarter to take the lead.
When Toronto cooled from outside, the Rockets pulled away, building a lead as large as 16 points.
It wasn’t the all-stars — Harden and Russell Westbrook — doing the damage though the latter produced a triple-double but had a terrible shooting night and turned over the ball excessively.
It was former Raptor Tucker and guards Danuel House and McLemore raining three-pointers. The trio had 10 treys in the first half alone as Houston went up 63-55.
Toronto expended all kinds of energy swarming Harden while also trying to get back to defend the three-point line and there were periods where Houston went on big runs.
“I think we did a pretty good job of executing our game plan,” said Fred VanVleet, who might have been the best Raptor on the night, all around. “I don’t think you make that gamble, expecting them to shoot 40% and make 22 (three-pointers), so give those guys credit. They knocked down shots.”
VanVleet had to run a ton as the player scrambling the most to cover ground.
“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. Obviously, it’s not very common in the league, but a guy like James isn’t very common either,” VanVleet said. “So you know that’s what the coaches came up with and just try to go out there and execute as best we can.”
Toronto had held opponents to 33.2% shooting on three-pointers, No. 2 in the NBA, but the Rockets nailed 40% of their attempts. The 55 three-point shots by the visitors was just one shy of the NBA high for this season, set by Brooklyn.
Yet it was his team’s offence that most bothered Raptors head coach Nick Nurse on this night.
“I don’t think we played offence well enough,” Nurse said. “I thought we missed open shots … A few careless possessions where they scored in transition, so it really had nothing to do with the double teams and offensive rebounding. I think the transition defence is where they did a good job of capitalizing when we turned the ball over.”
Harden finished with 23 points, largely thanks to 11 in the third quarter before he briefly left after suffering a head injury. McLemore had 28, Tucker 18. Westbrook had 19, along with 13 rebounds and 11 assists, but shot just 7-for-27.
The offence wasn’t all a lost cause for Toronto, though. Pascal Siakam (24 points) and Kyle Lowry (19, along with eight assists) bounced back from a tough game against Miami on Tuesday. Siakam had followed his season-low 10-point performance versus Orlando with 35 against Utah on Sunday. He had only 15 on Tuesday in the overtime loss against the Heat, Toronto’s first home defeat of the season, but responded against Houston with 14 in the first quarter alone. Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell both hit double digits in scoring off of the bench.
The league has been trying to figure out how to contain Harden and Toronto tried an interesting approach and found some success at times with it, but not so much at others.
Tucker is particularly deadly from the corners (he leads all players in makes and attempts from there and shoots better than 55% from there) and he was once again in this one.
McLemore’s performance was the outlier, but he had a similar effort last week.
Houston led 94-88 after three and Toronto threatened a few times from there, but couldn’t come all the way back.
Harden has led the NBA in scoring in each of the past two seasons, but the 30.4 points required to lead the pack in 2017-18 seems quaint when you think about how many more points are being scored these days league-wide. It was a big deal when Harden shot up to 36.1 per game in 2018-19, but he entered Thursday’s game averaging 39.5 points in 37.4 minutes per game. Only Wilt Chamberlain has ever averaged more. The Big Dipper averaged 50.4 points in 1961-62 (in 48.5 minutes) and 44.8 in 47.6 minutes the next year.
If he can keep this up, Harden would join only Chamberlain and Michael Jordan as players who have averaged at least 37 points in a season. Harden is already one of only five players to have averaged more than 35 points a game in a season.
He had averaged 28.7 points per game in 18 meetings with the Raptors. Only Allen Iverson (29.7) has averaged more in the 25-year history of the franchise. Steph Curry was 0.1 point behind Harden).
Harden had scored 110 points over his previous two games, becoming just the third player to follow a 60-point outing with a 50-point one and he was trying to join Kobe Bryant and Jordan as the only players with three 50-point games in a row since 1983.
He didn’t get there, thanks to Toronto’s defensive approach and, for once, Houston’s supporting cast was asked to do the heavy lifting and it answered the call.
The teams had seen quite a bit of each other already earlier this season, having split a pair of exhibitions in Tokyo back in October.
They were the first games Westbrook played as a member of the Rockets, while Lowry did not suit up because he hadn’t healed up yet from off-season thumb surgery. The Rockets lost reserve guard Gerald Green for much of the season in one of the games after he landed awkwardly after a big dunk.
The most interesting thing for the Raptors in the two contests might have been the fact they brought Marc Gasol off of the bench behind Serge Ibaka, something they haven’t tried at all in the regular season this year.
Gasol started on Thurday, as usual, but Ibaka spent some time playing alongside No. 3 centre Chris Boucher.
Speaking of familiar faces, Tucker was originally drafted by the Raptors in the second round in 2006 and returned to the club via trade a few seasons ago, before signing with Houston.
AROUND THE RIM
The teams had seen each other twice already back in October, for a pair of exhibitions in Tokyo … Rockets centre Clint Capela had grabbed at least 19 rebounds in each of his previous nine games, the longest run since 1969, but he was held in check for most of the night … VanVleet scored at least 20 points for the sixth time in his past eight games. VanVleet has scored at least 20 points 10 times this season after doing it on only seven occasions in his first three seasons combined … It was ‘Giants of Africa’ night, with the Raptors and Masai Ujiri once again honouring Nelson Mandela on the anniversary of his death … Houston came in averaging just shy of 16 made three-pointers a night … Toronto ranked second in the NBA at 39% from three, but hit only 32% … Houston was one of only three teams to sweep Toronto in last year’s season series.