The Houston Rockets failed to climb back up to the .800 mark in the season, and now have fallen behind the Portland Trailblazers to the fourth seed in the west. After putting every bit of their backs, all their elbow grease, and a hell of a lot of moxie into an overtime win against the Denver Nuggets, the Rockets came home to find the New Orleans Pelicans laying in wait and ready to take advantage of a truly fatigued team. The return of Kostas Papanikolaou wasn’t enough to take this team over the top, despite heading into the fourth quarter with a lead.

The Rockets couldn’t hit shots. The team was only 38% from the floor and 24% from behind the arc (but a respectable 78% from the stripe, somehow). Their layups were rolling out, jumpers were rattling out, and tired legs led to sloppy play on more than a few occasions. Houston’s starters have been carrying a heavy load, and carrying it for an extra five minutes of overtime turned a challenging game into an episode of American Gladiators. The normally anemic rim defense from New Orleans metamorphosed into the paint protection one expects from Anthony Davis and Ömer Aşık. It was a great game from the Pelicans, and a gutty loss from the Rockets.

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Screenshot 2014-12-18 08.24.26

It’s been striking witnessing the complete transformation of the Houston offense these past two games since Dwight Howard’s return to the lineup.  After Donatas Motiejunas’ emergence as a legitimate post option during Howard’s absence, the fear held by many, including myself, was that Kevin McHale would revert the former to his previous role as a bystander.  So far, that has not been the case.  Last night, even with Howard on the court, the Rockets looked to establish Motiejunas on nearly every possession in the early going, surely an astonishing sight for any observer of this team.  D-Mo finished with 18 points on 7-13 shooting; Howard put in 24 and 16.

We talked extensively of the potential of the big man pairing in our latest podcast episode, but last night’s game only reaffirmed my former beliefs.  A budding Motiejunas is not simply a weapon – his emergence signals the total metamorphosis of this team from a year ago.  Primarily a pick and roll team last season, Houston looked either to the blocks for their big men or to a Harden isolation on what seemed like every possession last night.  As I noted on Twitter, there were several possessions where after looking around early in the shot clock for some other development, Houston simply opted to feed Motiejunas on the block and allow him to go to work.  McHale and the team have developed extreme trust in this bailout option.

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Dwight Howard may be back, but the injury bug is far from gone.

The Rockets are working to make sure Howard’s knee stays healthy, but with Motiejunas’s emergence, Houston’s big man depth is acceptable. However, Isaiah Canaan played just 7 minutes (and I don’t remember him being on the court at all), Papanikolaou is still out, Jason Terry missed tonight’s game to attend to the birth of his child, Francisco Garcia is injured and has one foot in the grave, and Nick Johnson is not ready for the NBA. Houston’s wing and point guard depth has still not improved.

No matter. James Harden may be playing for too minutes in this league, but he is good enough. He may still get caught ball watching from time to time like he did on Arron Affalo’s game-tying 3-pointer, but 41 points and 10 assists make up for that. I can certainly understand why someone might take Stephen Curry ahead of him in the MVP race, but I remain confused about how some have placed Chris Paul, Marc Gasol, or Anthony Davis ahead of him. But tonight, even Denver’s Pepsi Center rang with the chants of Rocket fans yelling “M-V-P” for a time.

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Rockets Roundup: 12/17/14

A quick and digestible look at the most top-of-mind Rockets news of the past few days.   

 

Hardwood Paroxysm. 15-footer: James Harden beats the MVP drum.

While the early season starts from some surprising MVP candidates have succumbed to gravity and slowly began to descend back to Earth, one young guard has come from the South to the forefront of the MVP conversation. The Houston Rockets are 18-5, have the second-best defense in the league, have survived without Dwight Howard, and James Harden is playing out of his mind right now.

Houston Chronicle. Isaiah Canaan expected back vs. Nuggets.

For a second consecutive game, the Rockets could get one of their injured players back on Wednesday, with guard Isaiah Canaan expected to return after missing seven games with a sprained ankle. Dwight Howard returned on Saturday. Forwards Kostas Papanikolaou and Terrence Jones, and guard/forward Francisco Garcia are out, but Papanikolaou hopes to return to the court, and possibly a game, next weekend.

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Successful Post Entry

One of the keys to the Rockets’ success so far this season has been their ability to use effective play from the post to score points. First Howard and then Motiejunas have established themselves on the block, providing a vital source of structure and (more importantly) points for the team’s offence in the half court. Although the big men have been converting at a high rate when they get the ball in position, from time to time the rest of the Rockets struggle to get them the ball in good position to make a move (Rahat and Forrest alluded to this in their podcast). In this post I’ll take a look at a few examples of post feed situations in order to look at what the Rockets could do better here.

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