The Houston Rockets are a potential Western Conference championship contender, and the team was coming off of an impressive road win over the defending Western champs in San Antonio on Wednesday night prior to its pairing with the Memphis Grizzlies. Playing at home on Thursday, it seemed more than fair to assume that the team would have its way with the competitive but injury-addled Grizzlies, who are struggling to both score and defend to their typical levels with Marc Gasol still on the pine.
Houston pulled off that expected win, downing the Grizzlies 100-92, and guard James Harden scored his expected 27 points along the way. It was the way both Harden and the Rockets went about their typical totals that boggles a bit, though, as Harden shot just 2-9 from the field and yet still managed a points output that would rank second in the NBA in scoring if kept up throughout the year. The Rockets All-Star hit 22-25 free throws in the win, becoming the first player in NBA history to score 27 or more points while hitting two or fewer shots.
An oddity like that doesn’t come without some help, but Harden was modest about what he nearly termed as an off night. From the Associated Press:
''Just being aggressive, being aggressive,'' Harden said of the free throws. ''I couldn't make a shot. I just tried to get to the rim. We were kind of stagnant through the middle of the game, especially the third quarter, so I just wanted to get in attack mode.''
Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph, however, was quick to point to what he saw as Harden’s enablers. From ClutchFans.net:
In case you can’t play the video at work, here are Randolph’s fine-worthy thoughts about Memphis’ evening:
“It’s obvious, it was the refs tonight. Eight against five. The game, in the second half, the man was shooting free throws every time. We’re out there playing hard. They’re dictating the game. It can’t be like that, man. We’re out here playing too. It was horrible refereeing — a horrible game they reffed tonight. Awful. They dictated the game. Plain, point simple. They dictated the game. We’re out here working as hard as them. Come on, man.”
We expect to be updating this post later today to reflect the fine the NBA will levy against Mr. Randolph in the wake of his “eight against five” comments.
It’s true that referees Pat Fraher, James Capers and Karl Lane were quick to blow the whistle; especially in a fourth quarter that saw Harden make 9-11 from the stripe. Still, with the Rockets having played the night before on the road, and with coach Kevin McHale noticing his team’s “draggy” outlook before the contest on the second night of a back to back, Houston created its own good fortune. The refs help, and that stings in what was a winnable road game for the beleaguered Grizzlies, but Harden played the entire second half, and did well to create content and set shot scoring opportunities for his tired legs.
With that in place, you can understand Randolph’s frustrations.
The Grizzlies are struggling. They entered Thursday having won their prior two games, but those were only against the lowly New York Knicks and Utah Jazz, and after having lost the five previous games. The squad’s defense, ranked last year at second in the NBA, has fallen to 24th as 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol continues to sit, and a season ending foot fracture to Quincy Pondexter further limited Memphis’ already skinflint depth.
This was always going to be a rough season for the Grizzlies, as the new ownership and front office group purposely chipped away at the team’s payroll and potential luxury tax figure last winter, doing well to free up the payroll mess they inherited from the previous regime but also limiting the team to a wafer-thin rotation. Randolph remains the team’s leading rebounder and he’s nearly tied for the team lead in points, but Gasol is clearly Memphis’ most important player – a dominant defender and offensive initiator that cannot be replicated by any number of low post or point guard options in reserve.
This is part of the reason why Randolph, potentially in the final year of his contract, could be up for any number of moves between now, the trade deadline, or next July. CBS Sports’ Ken Berger discussed as much on Thursday:
Still, there are long-term decisions to be made. If Randolph exercises his player option for next season, the Grizzlies' $62 million in committed salary will leave them comfortably under the tax but will afford no room to shop for free agents. League sources expect Randolph, 32, to opt out and try to score one more multi-year deal. But two people familiar with the situation say Memphis is not out of the mix to retain Randolph in such a scenario. The team is determined not to lose Randolph for nothing, so unless Randolph expresses a strong desire to leave -- which he hasn't -- there's no immediate pressure to trade him.
"It's a business and we've got new ownership, but I've still got a job," Randolph said. "That's why I go out and play hard no matter what."
Randolph truly loves it in Memphis, the franchise took a chance on him at his low ebb in 2009 and he responded with improved play, and a go-to low post game that helped take the Grizzlies to the second round in 2011, and helped the team take advantage of a weakened Western bracket on their way to the third round earlier this year.
The franchise, in turn, responded with a potential four-year, $66 million extension for Zach in 2011. In an ideal world for both sides, Randolph would decline his nearly $17 million player option for next season and sign an extension for a lower per-year rate to take him deep into his 30s, but things have a way of changing quickly in this league, and there’s no telling where the front office may send Randolph in either February, or next summer.
He’ll take anything to offset that impending fine, though. Zach counted to eight on Thursday night, and it’s going to cost him quite a bit.
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