It's convenient that a conference and about 2,500 kilometres separate Toronto from Houston, because I doubt the Raptors want anything to do with the Rockets again this season. Playing for the second time this month, the Rockets offered a repeat performance of their March 6 win at the Air Canada Centre -- confounding and exasperating the Raptors' star duo in a 112-109 win.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan had their frustrations boil over tonight, as they were both ejected in the fourth quarter for arguing calls. With a game's worth of questionable calls not going their way, each had a different probable cause to be upset.
Lowry was dealing with Patrick Beverley all evening (not the most pleasant 30th birthday present), with jaws flapping on both sides each time the camera zoomed in. DeRozan, on the other hand, simply wasn't getting whistles on bumps in the paint that usually send him to the line. The pair combined to shoot 10-for-32 for 33 points, and while their supporting cast was ready and able to make it a game, the two All-Stars didn't play up to their standards and, down the stretch, weren't even present on the floor.
On the other side, James Harden followed up a 40-point night earlier in the month with a triple-double, building on a slow start with a huge second half for 32 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds. It's Harden's third triple-double of the season, his second while scoring over 30 points.
While Harden went off late, the rest of the Rockets looked able upon opening tap. Houston opened the game on an 11-3 run, with Jonas Valanciunas struggling to rotate to Houston's shooters (a theme we'll return to later). Beverley and Michael Beasley benefited most, the former with four threes in the opening quarter, the latter with 10 of his 21 points.
The Raptors woke up in the second quarter, as Lowry and Norman Powell were determined in both getting the ball moving and driving to the rim. Powell played extended minutes as Terrence Ross sat out with a sore thumb, looking better than his 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting suggests. His corner three continues to develop, he played good defense on Harden, and continues to attack with reckless abandon.
Riding a Lowry-DeRozan-Powell backcourt for most of the quarter, the Raptors went on a 15-0 run and led 58-54 going into halftime.
That working rotation, though, was thrown out after the break. As J.B. Bickerstaff went with super small lineups intermittently in the second half, the two sides of Valanciunas started to get exposed. He looked outstanding when matched up with Dwight Howard, who was abysmal tonight with 2 points, 6 rebounds and 6 fouls. On the other hand, when the Rockets went with Beasley at the five, Valanciunas floundered. His line of 16 points and 18 rebounds warranted him getting play, but ultimately the failure of Dwane Casey to adapt to Houston's smaller lineups did the Raptors in.
With the ball starting to flow, Harden got his shot going, Houston's supporting cast made easy buckets, and Valanciunas kept turning his head to watch it all happen. The Rockets built a double-digit lead by the middle of the fourth quarter, and as Lowry and DeRozan pushed to get their team back into it, the inconsistent whistle flared their tempers. Their ejections sealed the evening, as a failed miracle late made the score look closer than the game really was.
There were a couple other notable performances from the Raptors supporting cast tonight, who really did impress. Luis Scola continued his hot shooting, actually outplaying Patrick Patterson for 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting against his former team. Cory Joseph shook off a bad first half to get 11 points of his own, albeit with four turnovers. Seven different Raptors players ended the game with double digits in the losing effort.
That distribution didn't matter much, though. As the Rockets continue to frustrate the Raptors, it continues to impact the end result. The Raptors haven't won in Houston since the spring of 2007, when Kris Humphries and Andrea Bargnani combined for 36 points off the bench. Beautiful memories.
That's distant history, though; the short-term concerns are more pressing. DeRozan was also thrown out in the March 6 matchup, which speaks more to the opposition than the refereeing crew. Given both DeRozan and Lowry will see tough defenders and a less forgiving whistle come playoff time, there's reason to be slightly disconcerted that this trend is repeating itself.
There's not too much time to dwell on all this, though. The Raptors are in New Orleans tomorrow night to play a depleted Pelicans team -- continuing a road trip that's been anything but kind thus far.
What did you think of tonight's game?