Getting yourself to the foul line is a major skill in the NBA. James Harden’s knack for that was probably the biggest reason the Houston Rockets beat the Charlotte Hornets Monday.
The Hornets were playing their last home game of a lost season and put up more of a fight than the previous two games. But Harden took 16 free throws – one fewer than the Hornets combined – and that all but decided the Rockets’ 100-90 victory.
“He’s so great at drawing fouls, even when he’s not making shots,” Hornets point guard Brian Roberts said of Harden (29 points).
The Rockets (55-26) are still fighting for seeding in the Western Conference playoff race. The Hornets (33-48) were eliminated from playoff contention in Atlanta Friday night.
Now coach Steve Clifford is getting his young players experience while still trying to play respectably. He was without five injured rotation players Monday – Al Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Lance Stephenson and P.J. Hairston.
None of those five is expected to play in Wednesday’s season finale against the Raptors in Toronto. Clifford also sat veteran point guard Mo Williams and it sounds like that’s a strong possibility again Wednesday.
“He’s dressing in case I need to throw him in there,” Clifford said of his desire to let Williams rest. “When he got on that roll (in March) I overused him. On the West Coast trip he came to my room and said ‘Twenty-six to 28 (minutes per night) is the most I can handle.’ ”
So with meaningful games over for this group, Clifford has been using Roberts, Troy Daniels and especially rookie power forward Noah Vonleh extensively. Daniels and Vonleh have such limited experience that Clifford has tried to keep either Kemba Walker or Gerald Henderson on the floor with them to keep the group organized.
Clifford praised Henderson for playing through nagging injuries the past few games that easily could have sidelined him.
“Gerald Henderson should not be out there. He’s showing so much professionalism,” Clifford said, adding that Henderson has hip and quadriceps injuries. “He’s playing as long as he can and he’s hurting.”
The Hornets got 23 points from Roberts, who made five 3-pointers Monday. Daniels added 15 points, making three 3-pointers. Jeff Taylor, the Hornets’ first option guarding Harden Monday, scored a season-high 16 points.
“The difference was the free throws,” Clifford said. “Our guys did a good job on Harden, but he got to the free-throw line so much.”
Vonleh shot poorly Monday (1-of-8 from the field) but Clifford likes what he is seeing from the rookie’s energy and aggressiveness. He played 23 minutes Monday and Clifford said he might play 30 Wednesday in Toronto.
“The toughest part of the transition to the NBA is defense,” Clifford said. “Last night (versus the Detroit Pistons Sunday) he had to guard (Greg) Monroe in the post and (Anthony) Tolliver on the perimeter.”
Vonleh, the ninth pick last June, suffered a sports hernia late in the summer that cost him training camp and most of the preseason. He’s been playing catch-up ever since.
“As Noah does play more,” Clifford said, “he’ll become more and more comfortable.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell