Houston is still an impressive 14-7 on the season but was just 2-4 in its previous six games until James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. all played well in a balanced offensive effort.
As for the Raptors, they have played well in their title-defense campaign even without Kawhi Leonard and are 15-6 despite losing their last two.
Notable Player Stats
- HOU G Ben McLemore: 28 points and three assists on 8-of-17 shooting from three-point range
- HOU G James Harden: 23 points, seven rebounds, five steals and three assists on 7-of-11 shooting
- HOU G Russell Westbrook: 19 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists and two steals on 7-of-27
- HOU F P.J. Tucker: 18 points and 11 rebounds on 5-of-10 shooting from three-point range
- HOU F Danuel House Jr.: 16 points and three assists on 3-of-8 shooting from three-point range
- TOR F Pascal Siakam: 24 points, nine rebounds and two steals on 9-of-22 shooting
- TOR G Fred VanVleet: 20 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals on 7-of-13 shooting
- TOR G Kyle Lowry: 19 points, eight assists and five rebounds on 5-of-8 shooting
Role Players Ensure Rockets Don't Have to Protest Thursday's Game
Houston made headlines when it "prepared to file a protest" stemming from Tuesday's 135-133 double-overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, because officials thought Harden's fourth-quarter dunk didn't fully go through the basket.
That loss was notable for more than just the missed call, as Harden and Westbrook combined for 68 shots as the only players on the Rockets with more than nine field-goal attempts.
The Rockets used a different strategy against the Raptors.
McLemore, Tucker and House rained three-pointers and took full advantage whenever the Raptors shifted additional attention toward the primary two playmakers. Harden in particular took a backseat in the early going with one shot in the first quarter and three shots in the first half, but the role players more than made up for it.
Harden also temporarily left the game in the second half after taking an elbow to the head from Serge Ibaka, but he returned in the fourth quarter to help the visitors secure the win.
Yet, it was the role players who carried the Rockets for much of the game and helped Westbrook rack up the assists on his way to a triple-double even though he was an ugly 7-of-27 from the field.
Raptors' Typically Strong Defense Falters in Western Conference Test
The Raptors entered this contest fourth in the league in defensive rating, per NBA.com, and held their opponents to fewer than 100 points in five of their last seven games that ended in regulation.
Their swarming defense that contests almost every shot is a primary reason they have survived the loss of Leonard, but they had no answer to the balance of Houston's attack on Thursday. Focusing on Harden figured to be a successful formula, but the perimeter shooters made them pay throughout the game.
It appeared as if Toronto would overcome its woes on the defensive side with strong offensive showings from Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, the three main pieces remaining from the championship run. The offense came alive in the third quarter and gave the home team a chance to win, but Harden's late assertiveness and the timely shooting proved to be too much.
Fortunately for the Raptors, they won't have to face many tandems better than Harden and Westbrook in the Eastern Conference. Supporting casts likely won't consistently go off like Houston's did Thursday, either.
If Toronto's early season play is any indication, especially on defense, this two-game losing streak is more of an aberration than a sign of things to come.