HOUSTON—The loss of Clint Capela to injury added a 6'10", 240-pound weight on James Harden's already burdened shoulders, but it wasn't enough to hold the Houston Rockets' superstar down on Monday night.
On the same day that the Rockets announced that their starting center would miss four to six weeks due to ligament damage in his right thumb, Harden went out and padded his MVP resume with a new season high of 57 points in the Rockets' 112-94 win over the Memphis Grizzlies at Toyota Center.
"It was some tough news to hear this morning that Clint's going to be out six weeks," Harden said. "Obviously, Chris is already out, Eric has been out, so we had to rally the guys to get a win."
Danuel House Jr., Gerald Green and Austin Rivers added 15, 14 and 11 points, respectively, but Harden was a one-man wrecking crew, scoring all of his 57 in just 34 minutes. But if it seemed as if he were facing enough pressure to burst a pipe, he didn't let the Grizzlies know it.
"There's no pressure," Harden said. "I do this for a living. I have fun with it."
Whether he wants to admit it or not, the loss of Capela transfers an even bigger burden onto him. The Swiss big man was having a career year, averaging a personal best 17.6 points (on 63.1 percent shooting) and 12.6 rebounds per game.
He's also the Rockets' defensive anchor, blocking 1.8 shots per outing, and he protects the rim while the rest of team switches everything on the perimeter.
"I already know what Clint brings to the table, but it was tough for us," Harden said. "We don't have any lobs at the rim, defensively protecting the rim, shot-blocking."
The Rockets defense was problematic at the start of the season, but they tweaked their switch-everything philosophy by having Capela stay home. That kept opponents honest in the lane and gave him plenty of rebounding opportunities.
Capela's ability to move his feet, his length and knack for guarding smalls on the perimeter was also a plus. That's not something that backup center Nene Hilario can do at 36. With Capela hurt, the defense may need to be tweaked again.
"With Clint out, that's a big deal," Austin Rivers said. "I think teams are definitely going to try to get into the paint with us. I think we're going to continue to try different things to stop it."
Capela is also one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league. He sets textbook screens that free up Harden on the perimeter to improvise on offense. He's also a skilled roll man with an acute ability to throw down lobs. He is second in the league in dunks with 160.
He feeds on a steady diet of runners, cuts to the basket and putbacks, and he keeps the ball alive on offense (his 5.0 offensive rebounds per game are second in the league).
Harden's assist number will go down, too, because Capela, who leads the league in paint touch points (13.2), makes his job easier because of his ability to get to the open spot and he's also a great bailout guy on plays late in the shot clock.
In an effort to shore up Capela's absence on Monday, head coach Mike D'Antoni employed the big-man-by-committee strategy with Nene as the starter and the scarcely used Marquese Chriss and Isaiah Hartenstein as backups. It was not a huge success. The three combined for zero points, nine rebounds and zero blocks in 28 minutes.
From there, D'Antoni went small and plugged in Gary Clark at the 5. Clark's eight points were not even half of Capela's average, but he played well in extended minutes.
"Before the game, I'm thinking I'm going to go big by committee and I'm hoping that works out. But it didn't work out, I just didn't feel it, so we went small," D'Antoni said. "If the next game we go small and it doesn't work out, we'll go big by committee. So just trying to get a feel for the game. Gary went in and he did a great job. They were trying to double-team James, and then we just put some spacers out there, so it's hard to double-team."
"Offensively, it's different without Clint because he's more of a lob threat than the other bigs," Marc Gasol said. "But they did a good job of bringing in a shooter at the 5, so that it would spread out the floor. They also did a good job of mixing up the spacing, mixing up the plays and the looks for James, and he did a great job of being aggressive at all times."
Spacing. That's how Houston will be able to tread water until they get Paul, Gordon and Capela back.
"We'll spread the floor a lot more and put shooters around James," D'Antoni said. "We'll take more threes, I don't know. We'll see. Soon we're getting Eric back, soon we'll get Chris back, things will change and we'll have to see what we got and what we have to play with."
Harden will have to orchestrate the pick-and-pop with players like House, Green, Rivers and Clark to be effective and create open lanes for his drives to the basket.
"My biggest thing is making sure I got the shooters in and the right guys in there for [Harden]," D'Antoni said. "He's going to orchestrate. He's going to figure out a way to get his points at a high level, so I trust him totally.
"James orchestrates this. He does such a great job of knowing where he wants people to be and knowing who he wants to pick on and who he feels he can go around. He kinda has a feel for that, and I let him do it and it's worked out pretty good so far."
Should the Rockets need to go big, they may make a move before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. One such option is Robin Lopez. The 11th-year veteran is trapped with the Chicago Bulls, and since his playing time was recently pulled, he'd like to make a beeline for a contender.
Houston would have to give up at least a second-round pick to the asset-happy Bulls to land Lopez in a trade, but it may be worth it to address its dearth of big men going into the playoff push.
In the meantime, they'll look to get meaningful minutes out of Clark behind Nene. Clark has shown that he can hit the open three ball can defend on the perimeter and the low block.
"Gary did great," P.J. Tucker said. "Gary came in and gave us some good energy, knocked down some shots. But more than that, he was great on defense—being able to hold the bigs off and rebound the ball, deflecting some balls. He was all over the place. He's just got to be able to read the plays, that's all."
Small ball is probably not a sustainable solution. Although the Rockets won Monday, they were 3-5 in the eight games Capela missed last season. But if Clark can continue to play well, and House, Green and Rivers continue to shoot from behind the arc, the Rockets may be able to keep their heads above water into the All-Star break.
"That's what we gotta do," Tucker said. "It's nothing new to us. We finished the season last year like that. In the playoffs, that was our best lineup going small, especially finishing games. So it's something we can do whenever we need to. Not a lot of teams got bigs that they're going to throw it in every time to the post. Memphis does, but most teams aren't just going to throw it into the post and try to play in the post, so it works."
No matter what tact Houston takes in the interim, it'll need Harden to keep delivering otherworldly performances.
"I just got to play the right way," Harden said. "Make shots and be the playmaker that I am. Someone goes down, that's an opportunity for somebody else to step up. Guys got an opportunity to play, so they have to take advantage of it. But for me, nothing changes."