HOUSTON — When the Nets get healthy, gain control of their rightful first-round picks and eventually grow up, they aspire to be the Houston Rockets. But Monday night at the Toyota Center they could do little more than watch in awe as the real Rockets lit them up.
The great James Harden had a brilliant 20-point first quarter on his way to scoring 37 points, and the Rockets made 20 of 50 three-point attempts as they ran away from the Nets, 117-103. Although the Nets played the same up-tempo game emphasizing three-pointers, they did it without the same arsenal of shooters as their 10-for-39 three-point marksmanship showed.
The outmanned Nets (7-13) were missing three starters because of injury or illness, including DeMarre Carroll (upper respiratory infection), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (sprained ankle) and Allen Crabbe (sore lower back). They were forced to recall Isaiah Whitehead from the G League Long Island Nets, and he flew in Sunday night and gave them a superb game, scoring 24 points on 10-for-16 shooting.
The Nets at least could take solace in not allowing the game to get out of hand after the 43-26 first-quarter bombardment by Harden and the Rockets. “The first quarter was a hurricane,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “They hit us with the 1-2. I told the guys I’m proud how they bounced back. You can come in here and lose to this team by 40. That’s how talented they are. We had a bunch of young guys out there, so I was glad to see them competing.”
In the second quarter, Atkinson went against his principles and switched to a 2-3 zone in an effort to slow down Harden and center Clint Capela. It helped cut a 21-point Rockets lead to 66-55 at halftime, and when the Nets opened the third quarter with a 10-3 burst, they narrowed the Rockets’ lead to four at 69-65 on a layup by Joe Harris.
“Obviously, we played a ton of zone, which we’ve never done,” Atkinson said. “For them to adapt . . . after that disastrous first quarter, that’s the positive I take out of it.”
The Nets (7-13) also got 14 points and seven assists from Spencer Dinwiddie, 13 points and six assists from Caris LeVert, 12 points from Sean Kilpatrick and 10 points from Tyler Zeller and Harris. Harden fell just short of a triple-double, finishing with 10 rebounds and eight assists, and his 37 points came on 13-fpr-20 shooting, including an 8-for-13 effort from three-point range. The Rockets (16-4), who won their fifth straight game, also got 20 points from Capela.
The two teams shot a combined 89 three-pointers, eclipsing by one the NBA record they set the final time they met last season. “They play very fast-paced, a lot of threes, very similar to how we want to do it,” Harris said, ‘but with the talent level and with Harden’s first quarter, it kind of put us in a hole. But in the next three quarters, we really did a good job of competing and climbing back into it.”
After the Nets got within four, former Knick Trevor Ariza delivered five points to trigger a 9-0 Rockets run for an 80-67 cushion. The Nets got within 10 before Harden powered a 12-2 surge with eight points to push the lead back to 20.
“We just needed a little bit of momentum to go our way, and it seemed every time we were inching closer, Harden was able to make a play for himself or for somebody else,” Harris said.
“He’s extremely impressive just creating shots for himself, but he’s just as good at getting guys shots as well. With his feel for the game, he can take over a quarter like that and facilitate. That’s why he’s a top-five player in this league.”