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James Harden posted 31 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists as the Houston Rockets won their seventh straight game thanks to a 107-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday at the Toyota Center in Houston.
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Clint Capela added 18 points, nine rebounds and four steals for the 40-25 Rockets, who are now tied for third in the Western Conference with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Eric Gordon contributed 17 points.
Tobias Harris led the 41-25 76ers with 22 points, and Ben Simmons earned a near triple-double with 15 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.
Philadelphia was without starting center Joel Embiid, who hasn’t played since the All-Star break because of left knee soreness.
Rockets Are NBA‘s Most Dangerous Team Entering Homestretch
No NBA team is hotter than the Rockets, who have the NBA’s longest active winning streak. Given their stiff competition during that seven-game stretch, it’s hard to argue they aren’t the league’s most dangerous team.
The Rockets easily dispatched the 76ers after having little issue with the Toronto Raptors (47-19) and Boston Celtics (40-26) in their previous two games. In that trio of contests, they averaged a 13-point margin of victory against three of the top five Eastern Conference teams.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Ready for Playoff Harden?
During this 7-game win streak, Rockets have beaten the Celtics, Raptors and Sixers by double-digits https://t.co/CesTl28mBD
And Houston started the aforementioned run with a 118-112 win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors—that was on the road and without Harden.
Who would look forward to a matchup with Houston right now?
The team numbers tell a similar story. The Rockets entered Friday second in offensive efficiency (114.5 points scored per 100 possessions), per NBA.com, despite the extended absences of three of their four best players.
FiveThirtyEight lists the Rockets as the second-strongest team via regular-season Elo rating, which is defined as a “measure of team strength based on head-to-head results, margin of victory and quality of opponent.” Their Elo Rating improved by the fifth-most points since March 1, and that number should only improve after the 76ers win.
And their defense, which has struggled for much of the year, has improved. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle wrote about that prior to the 76ers game:
“The Rockets have shown flashes, ranking among the best defensive teams in the NBA in the second half of their first four games of the winning streak and then excelling in the first half and down the stretch in Boston and Toronto. The 25th-rated defense in the NBA heading into the break, they have been 15th in the winning streak, which seems to equally indicate the progress made and also needed given their renewed championship aspirations.“
That was before the Rockets allowed their third-lowest point total this season Friday night.
The Rockets also pass the eye test. Specifically, Capela has been a serious problem since returning from thumb surgery. Not many centers can do what Capela did here, going end to end with a steal plus an and-1:
Houston Rockets @HoustonRockets
We 👀 you big fella’ !
Basket + Foul ✔️ https://t.co/M33omAl4US
Nor can they outrun defenders coast to coast for a dunk:
But the biggest reason to be scared of the Rockets (aside from MVP candidate James Harden) is that Capela, Gordon and Chris Paul are all healthy after missing a combined 51 games. They are second through fourth in scoring on the team, respectively, and they’re all back.
Houston’s slate until March 24 is also manageable, so this run could continue. Seven of the Rockets’ next nine opponents have losing records, and Houston will host the two that don’t (Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs). A double-digit winning streak on the road to the playoffs is a possibility.
Joel Embiid Can’t Come Back Soon Enough
If Embiid had played Friday, would this moment have occurred?
Gordon leads Harden in for the @HoustonRockets dunk!
4:49 remaining on @ESPNNBA https://t.co/5dThcUHfYX
Harden drove through the lane with no resistance in a moment that symbolized the night. It was something Kyle Neubeck of the PhillyVoice perhaps foreshadowed when he posted this pregame poll:
Kyle Neubeck @KyleNeubeck
Without Joel Embiid to anchor the back end, James Harden will score _____ points tonight
The 76ers looked deflated and lethargic in a lifeless road performance, just two days after being on the wrong end of a 108-107 upset to the 19-win Chicago Bulls. And it’s clear that Embiid needs to come back as soon as possible.
The bottom fell out against Houston. Of note, Philadelphia big men Amir Johnson and Jonah Bolden combined for three points on 1-of-8 shooting in 36 minutes, and the team went 3-of-25 from three-point range.
Granted, every team has off nights, but the 76ers were facing a Rockets team that entered Friday ranked 25th in defensive efficiency (111.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). They posted their lowest point total since opening night against the Boston Celtics in October.
Yes, the Rockets were 7.5-point favorites, per Vegas Insider, but the 76ers also had an 111.5-point implied team total and fell short of that by 20.5. By any measure, this game was a disaster.
Replacing Embiid’s production is an impossible task. The big man averaged 27.3 points on 48.2 percent shooting, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 blocks per game. He is No. 1 on the team in player efficiency rating and ninth in the league in that stat, per Basketball Reference.
Philadelphia’s road stays treacherous through March. Sure, a couple of easier matchups dot the ledger, like a home date with the 16-50 Cleveland Cavaliers. But a home matchup with the Indiana Pacers, who are third in the Eastern Conference, looms on Sunday. Matchups at the league-best Milwaukee Bucks and against the Boston Celtics, who have beaten Philadelphia three times, are also up ahead.
The good news is that Embiid could come back as early as Sunday, per Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic:
Our NBA Insider @ShamsCharania says there is some optimism Joel Embiid can return as soon as Sunday against Indiana. Here’s more. https://t.co/GlUQyaG629
But if he’s not there, then the Pacers have the advantage as the two teams fight alongside the C’s for the No. 3 seed in the East.
Both teams play Sunday. The 76ers return home to face the Indiana Pacers at the Wells Fargo Center, and the Rockets stay in-state for a road matchup against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center.