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James Harden reaches into bag of tricks late to upend New Orleans Pelicans, propelling Houston Rockets to 108-104 win

Unusual referee foul calls played a big part in another finish against the Rockets.

NBA: Houston Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans put forth a solid effort given that they were on a back-to-back having beaten the Dallas Mavericks in dramatic fashion Friday in front of a raucous home crowd. Unfortunately, Anthony Davis and company were not able to give fans a second consecutive victory as they fell to the Houston Rockets by a final score of 108-104.

Poor Start

The Pelicans had a sluggish start to the game offensively (42.1 FG%), but actually held Houston to an even lower field goal percentage at only 40.9%. However, New Orleans still trailed 30-20 at the end of the first quarter as Houston’s three-point shooting was lethal. The Rockets connected on six of of their 14 attempts while the Pelicans made only one of eight looks. As a sidebar, New Orleans only had 28 three-point attempts in the entire game. Houston took half that many in the first quarter — that is just insane!

After the struggles out of the gate, New Orleans quickly found themselves down 13, and with Anthony Davis on the bench, there was a real danger of getting blown out in this contest. To the team’s credit, they continued fighting to stay in the game and the second quarter saw big contributions from Tim Frazier, Julius Randle and NBA All-Star candidate Jrue Holiday.

The Rockets are notorious for switching literally everything on the defensive end, even if that leads to incredibly lopsided mismatches for their defenders. On several possessions in the second quarter, the Rockets switched on all Frazier-Randle pick-and-rolls and after Randle punished them inside — he had 12 first quarter points — the Rockets began to completely leave Frazier to double Randle. This made getting to the rim very difficult for the Pelicans.

To counter this, Frazier was going to have to hit some shots to gain the Rockets respect. Frazier did just that, hitting two very timely baskets to help the Pelicans stay afloat in the second quarter. The first basket was a three-point bomb after Houston left Frazier so they could double Julius Randle on left block. Randle found Frazier all alone on the left wing, and he nailed the three.

On the very next possession, the Pelicans ran another pick-and-roll which Houston initially switched as Frazier hit Randle with a dart in the paint. Rockets forward P.J. Tucker left Frazier again to double Julius Randle who then found Frazier at the top of the key for a wide open two point shot. Frazier scored all seven of his points in the second quarter, but New Orleans was fortunate for those contributions as it kept the score within striking range.

Following Frazier’s timely scoring, Pelicans star Jrue Holiday dominated the action offensively for New Orleans. Holiday began to heat up after going 0-2 in the first quarter and scored seven points to go with two dimes before halftime. Jrue would go on to finish the game with a solid line of 20 points, nine assists, and six rebounds plus a steal and a block.

I’m just going to say this every time I put pen to paper — or finger to keyboard — this man is an All-Star.

If you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned Anthony Davis yet, it’s because he was weirdly absent offensively. He attempted only five shots in the first half, going 2-5 including a three-point shot. While Davis had a monster game in over 40 minutes of action twenty-four hours earlier, that doesn’t mean he can just come out and mail in the first half. Holiday and Randle played heavy minutes in the previous game as well and still showed up to play in the first half.

Personally, I’m tired of too many babying Anthony Davis when he takes the court without the requisite effort. It’s unfair to side kicks Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle as both have very heavy workloads on a nightly basis — not to mention to the rest of the team. Honestly, games like this truly show how far Davis has to go as a leader in this league. Just take a glance at what James Harden has done recently, especially with the injury to Chris Paul.

Despite AD’s no-show in the first half, New Orleans was still able to stay relatively close. The Pelicans entered the locker room down 53-50 due in large part to Julius Randle, who had 16 points and 5 rebounds. The Pels big man would go on to finish the game with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Randle as usual was a beast in the paint, but I wish he could learn how to bring better balance. Sometimes his eager presence destroys the spacing and he’s so physical at times that it always results in a charge or two.

Poor Closing

After just five attempts in the first, Anthony Davis was more aggressive in the second half — but it took him awhile to get going. He, like the Pelicans, came out flat in the third quarter but would go on to attempt eight shots and earn six free throw attempts leading to 14 second-half points. In addition, Holiday had a solid second half with 13 points as did E’Twaun Moore, who was inserted back into the starting lineup. Moore seemed much more comfortable in the starting role as opposed to usual bench role since returning from injury. Moore finished the game with 21 points and seven rebounds.

The Pelicans hung around for the entire second half, but a few crucial calls by the referees near the end of the game basically iced the game for Houston. With just under two minutes to go and New Orleans trailing 101-96, Holiday was whistled for the craziest personal foul I’ve ever witnessed. Following a Houston defensive rebound, Harden took the pass from Austin Rivers and turned right into Jrue Holiday. Both in live action and on replay, Holiday closed the airspace quickly in front of the half court line, and Harden seemed to initiate the the slightest of contact. I kid you not, a full three seconds later referee Zach Zarba whistled Holiday for a block.

Jrue Holiday’s reaction said it all — Are you kidding me, NBA???

Seconds later, and the point differential now three points after a score by Davis, Holiday was attempting to guard Harden bringing the ball up the floor again. More minimal contact ensued but because Harden voiced immediate displeasure Zarba whistled Holiday for another foul — and this time it put Harden on the free throw line. He knocked them both down and it effectively ended the game.

Overall, the free throw disparity in the game ended up being the difference. Houston attempted 28 free throws in the game while the Pelicans only managed 17 attempts. Once again, several were of the phantom variety that James Harden always gets. I honestly don’t understand how NBA referees continue to fall for Harden’s foul shtick. I counted at least three times Harden drew a call without any contact whatsoever, and hello, this guy doesn’t need any help as evidenced by a 41-point, 9-rebound, 6-assist and 7-three-pointer line.

I know people don’t like when we complain about referees, but the league really needs to put some emphasis on preventing those kind of vapor calls. Honestly, just as a fan of basketball it’s irritating and boring to watch. I have full confidence that the NBA will do absolutely nothing about this issue. Regardless, this game was there for the taking for the Pelicans, but the team was not able to close the game, missing a slew of jumpers, free throws and not taking advantage of being in the bonus — a theme that has become all too familiar for fans.

Next Up

New Orleans will have the day off on Sunday before welcoming the Minnesota Timberwolves on New Year’s Eve. It should be a good one as Anthony Davis always seems to bring it against fellow Kentucky Wildcat Karl-Anthony Towns.

Also, look for the possible return of Elfrid Payton. The Pelicans point guard has been out for almost six weeks with a broken finger, and he might be able to provide a jolt of much needed energy to the Pelicans depleted roster.