Some of you guys always trash me when I’m negative. But I can’t help it. I’ve been a fan of this team for twenty years and I’ve been hurt so many times, from Scottie Pippen being a complete and total free agent bust to Tracy McGrady’s body breaking down within months of his acquisition. So when I get the pre-game press release each afternoon listing Dwight Howard inactive, accompanied with the comments from Kevin McHale insinuating that he doesn’t know when Howard will return to the lineup, you can understand why I’d be nervous.
Look no further than recent Rockets history for a painful illustration of the fragility of the NBA. In 2004, Houston was riding high, on Cloud 9, with two of the top ten players in basketball, both under 25 years of age. Coming off a humbling playoff loss to Dallas, the thinking was that all Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady needed was time. A few months later, McGrady went down, and was mysteriously out of the lineup for the duration of the 2005 campaign. While there was certainly gossip, no one knew exactly what was going on at that time.
Fast forward to today as, after what seemed like just routine knee soreness, has now kept Dwight Howard out of the lineup for the past several games. It’s most likely nothing, but as someone who has been so emotionally invested in this team, its hard not to be nervous. Fortunes can turn so quickly.
From the New York Post:
Carmelo Anthony said he has no regrets about turning down the Rockets this summer, but acknowledged he took “a long, deep look at it’’ after Dwight Howard sold him hard.
As you may recall, I was strongly in favor of an Anthony acquisition this past summer, pegging him ahead of even Chris Bosh in terms of desirability. I felt that Anthony gave the team the type of midrange scorer it would need to challenge opponents in the later rounds of the postseason, when whistles are swallowed and shooters are chased off the three point line. Many of you contended that defense was the team’s biggest woe and that adding an offense-first player like Anthony would do nothing to change that. I responded that by the numbers, Anthony was adequate at the ‘4’, and that, more importantly, the defense would have to change from the hiring of an assistant coach, not by personnel. The thinking was that you can have the best players in the world, but with no set philosophy, you aren’t going anywhere. The Rockets’ start to the season has led me to think back upon these previous conclusions.
The question of Anthony ties in to the question of Bosh, and the greater question of responsibility for this almost miraculous turnaround in defensive proficiency. What is triggering this day and night change? There are a multitude of factors, from the hiring of T.R. Dunn, to the replacement of Chandler Parsons with Trevor Ariza at small forward, to renewed health on the part of Dwight Howard, to renewed focus on the part of James Harden. Which of the aforementioned has had the most overriding effect? While Howard has looked much better this season than last, we can rule that out because Houston has maintained its stinginess even in his absence from the lineup.
Tonight’s game served as a demonstration both of the importance of having a superstar as well as the fact that even NBA teams without one can pose a serious challenge. Even though Houston did not have three of its starters tonight, the Rockets came out and just outplayed Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks for nearly the entirety of the first half. Melo got his points for much of the game, but the rest of his team seemed completely unable to score. Then with 1:45 left in the second quarter, Anthony left for the locker while gingerly clutching his back. He would not return for the rest of the game, and Houston led 49-38. Easy pickings, right?
Buoyed by Houston’s carelessness, the Knicks promptly closed out the second quarter on an 8-2 run, and then made life miserable for the Rockets for the next one and a half quarters. They switched on every play and forced the Rockets into multiple poor offensive possessions, particularly in the turnover department. J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, and Travis Wear (a rookie from UCLA whom I had never heard of before tonight) hit some major shots. As the Knicks took a 78-72 lead in the fourth quarter, they appeared to be playing better without their superstar and ready to defeat a team with one.
But at the end of the day, New York’s lack of a superstar worked against. James Harden came in with eight minutes left in the game, and proceed to either score or assist on every single Houston basket for the remainder of the game. He finished with 36 points on 11-22 shooting, and an invigorated Houston crowd chanted “MVP” when he stood at the free throw line at the end of the game.
So this was an interesting play from the other night which immediately jumped out at me. Motiejunas sets the pick for Beverley out top, rolls, Beverley hits him, then Motiejunas skips it to the corner for Papa, then a re-post, then a basket. This caught my eye because you rarely see a multi-sequenced play from the Rockets’ offense, at least to such a degree. You’ll have the pick&roll with the lob to Howard, or the swing passes around the perimeter. But that skip pass from the big man and re-post was unique and probably more a product of improvisation than something drawn up – the two European Rockets have shown better chemistry with each other, already, than probably any two current Rockets, Howard and Harden included.
My first thought here was that if you could get Howard involved in some action like this, it would be game over for the defense, especially because where you see D-Mo re-posting, Dwight Howard sealing from that close in is a difficult proposition for basically any defender in the league. But I’m not sure Howard is capable of making that skip pass off the dribble, so that thwarts any notions of duplication.
Initially, one of the Rockets’ most glaring issues has been simply getting Dwight the ball, against aggressive defenses. We saw Nerlens Noel deny him even receipt of the ball. If the team is committed to posting Dwight, as they seem to be so far, they will have to find creative ways to feed him.
A quick and digestible look at the most top-of-mind Rockets news of the past few days.
SB Nation. James Harden is playing good defense and the Rockets are rolling.
“Making fun of James Harden’s defense is easy. He’s been comically bad on many occasions. It’s so easy to make fun of Harden’s defense that even Harden himself does it. But something funny is happening this season: Harden is leading the league in defensive win shares. At 1.04, he’s ahead of Tim Duncan (1.03) and Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol and Trevor Ariza (all at 0.93).”
Houston Chronicle. No Dwight? No problem as Rockets rally past Parsons, Mavs.
And for all the boos directed all night at Parsons in his first game back since defecting to the Dallas Mavericks, the cheers after his foul and Harden’s three-point play echoed until the Rockets had taken a 95-92 win with a stunning late run Saturday night. ‘I turned around and I saw them running in transition,‘ Harden said. ‘As I looked up, there was just Chandler, but he wasn’t square. He was kind of still running back. I felt like I had an advantage on him, and I just took it.‘