HOUSTON — During a timeout in the first quarter of Friday night’s game, Houston Dynamo owner and fight legend Oscar De La Hoya “boxed” Rockets mascot Clutch, dropping the bear with a nasty 1-2 combination.
The Rockets were De La Hoya. The Cavaliers were Clutch. An early knockout.
Unlike the first meeting between the two teams, a stunning win for the Cavs on Nov. 24 that looked to be a pivotal moment in the season, Houston clubbed Cleveland 141-113 in the rematch.
It’s the 12th straight loss for the Cavs. They haven’t won on the road in more than a month, with the last win away from The Q coming in Brooklyn on Dec. 3.
The Cavs trailed by 20 at the end of the first quarter. The Rockets lead exploded to 30 at halftime. The biggest lead was 44.
Early Friday morning, head coach Larry Drew spoke about the numerous differences in his team now and then. He mentioned the number of players missing from that first matchup. One of those guys: David Nwaba, who is still about a week away from returning after an ugly ankle sprain.
In the first game, Nwaba, Cleveland’s feisty on-ball defender, hounded reigning MVP James Harden, forcing him to work for his numbers. That game, Harden still finished with 40 points because, well, he’s perhaps the best individual scorer in the league. But it didn’t come easy in November.
Without Nwaba, the Cavs had no one capable of providing any resistance. Harden started cooking early. He finished with 43 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
The Cavs tried Alec Burks. No contest. Cedi Osman had his chances following switches. Nope. Tristan Thompson was matched against him a few times and couldn’t slow Harden down. Jordan Clarkson? Negative.
A few times, the coaching staff even signaled for the nearest defender, one that wasn’t playing on the ball, to sprint at Harden, forcing the ball out of his hands. Sometimes it was too late, as Harden had already stepped back for his patented 3-pointer. Other times, he wrecked the plan with one of his game-high 12 dishes.
Only Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni could slow him down, pulling Harden at the end of the third quarter for good.
Harden’s dominance is not specific to Cleveland. He’s shredding every opponent. He’s in the midst of an historic run, scoring at least 30 points in each of the past 15 games, which ties for the second-longest streak dating back to 1972-73.
“He’s playing at a tremendous level,” Drew said. “Right now, he’s almost unstoppable the way he’s making his shots and getting to the basket, getting to the free throw line and I know a lot of teams are throwing a lot of different things at him, but he’s really playing at a high level right now and he’s a terrific player. You give props where props are due.”
Still, Friday helped encapsulate the Cavs’ biggest problem. They gave up a season-high 141 points. The Rockets went 20-of-52 from beyond the arc.
The coaches can try different things defensively. They have throughout the season. The young, inexperienced personnel leaves them answerless most nights. It’s a frustrating reality that’s leading to sleepless nights and plenty of film breakdown.
No matter how much effort the players give, there’s no rim protector when everything crumbles on the perimeter. Some guys are too young to fully recognize an opponent’s tendencies. And their best defender, a guy at the center of the team’s best stretch of hoops this season, is sitting on the bench in street clothes.
It all adds up to the league’s worst defense, one that has given up 281 points over the last two games.
“Nobody comes in expecting to lose,” Drew said. “I think when you come into any building, if you bring that attitude, it’s the wrong attitude. It’s the NBA. Anybody can be beat on any given night. I’ve experienced it on both sides. We don’t ever come into any building expecting to lose.”
On offense, the Cavs got numerous contributions once again. Led by Ante Zizic, who scored 18 points, Cleveland had six players reach double figures. Osman tallied 15. Sexton scored 14. Burks poured in 13. Clarkson had 12 on just 5-of-15 shooting. Even two-way player Jalen Jones hit the double-figure mark, scoring 12.
Cleveland’s road trip continues on Sunday, as they make their lone visit to play the Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James will not play in the final meeting of the season against his old team because of a groin injury.