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Boston Celtics 103, Houston Rockets 91: Free Throws are kind of important.

Most basketball junkies, especially ones who follow the Houston Rockets, know of the importance of the free throw shot.  Moneyball or Moreyball eschews the mid-range long 2 pointer in favor of free throws and 3 pointers.  The latter gives the most reward when a shot is successfully made, and the former is the easiest shot in basketball, as most basketball players can shoot the ball at percentages which normally outclass the points earned per possession during a game.  There are exceptions to the rule, which is why the Hack-a-Shaq can be a viable tactic at times, but teams avoid giving up fouls for this very reason.  The Houston defense in particular emphasizes avoiding fouling and at times seems to prefer giving up layups to fouling, especially since the former means that they can still push the ball at their high pace.

Yet while earning free throws is an important offensive strategy, it also requires that one actually make them.  And tonight, the Houston Rockets accomplished something I personally have never seen before, where their field goal percentage of 43% surpassed their free throw percentage of 41% with 12 of 29 shooting from the foul line.  Combine that with a poor 3 point shooting night against a Boston team that takes its defensive rotations very seriously, and it is surprising the Rockets managed to put up an effort and fight for three and a half quarters at all.  To make things worse, this was not something which you could hang on an off night by any one player.  Asik in particular was miserable as he missed his first seven gimmees before finally making one for the night, but Greg Smith, a 69% free throw shooter, went 0-4, and Beardsanity combined for 7-12.  Even Motiejunas in garbage time missed his one free throw at the very end, for a performance which Rockets fans will hopefully never experience again.

To be perfectly fair, there were plenty of other problems that occurred for the Rockets throughout the night.  For once, Houston actually managed to play decently during the first quarter, but the Celtics bench made baskets at the end to take the 24-21 lead at the end.  From there, everything went downhill as the defense and rebounding collapsed to the Celtics’ bench, who at one point during the second quarter had 34 of Boston’s 46 points, as Courtney Lee broke out of a difficult season to take revenge on his former team and Jared Sullinger mauled Houston’s frontcourt (more on that below).  While the Celtics led by as much as 13 during the quarter as a result, Houston managed to shrink it within 8, only for Paul Pierce to come out shooting at the start of the half to a 71-54 score.  The Rockets would have one last chance in the fourth quarter where they finally played defense and rebounded to shrink the gap to 2 at 83-81, but the Celtics made another run to effectively end the game with 5 minutes to go.

Perhaps a more normal night from the free throw line would not have necessarily changed the outcome, especially since Asik has been noticeably struggling from the free throw line as of late.  His once relaxed form, while not showing the hitch of other notoriously poor at the line big man such as Shaq and our very own Chuck Hayes, is flinging the ball at the net more than it was earlier and his percentage has visibly dropped.  However, it would have made this game more competitive and perhaps opened the door to some late-game heroics from Harden.  Instead, the Bearded One’s 25-point streak came to an end at 14 as he finished with 24 points but also compiled six turnovers in the face of Celtics pressure and double teams.  The final result is an incredibly disappointing loss, one from which the Rockets will need to rebound against tomorrow on the second night of a back to back as some grow worried about a losing streak.

  • When the 2008-09 Rockets squad was assembled, the team that with Ron Artest was supposed to finally make it to the NBA Finals, John Hollinger noted in his season preview that the Rockets were championship caliber at every position but point guard, where Rafer Alston was still in charge (as an aside, I do hold the belief that Toney Douglas is Mr. Alston’s long-lost cousin, with both the good and bad that entails).  This current starting squad, led by the Beardsanity combo, Parson’s versatility, and Asik’s defense, is a team that has a realistic shot at the playoffs…with the notable problem of power forward.
  • It is frustrating for a team which has young power forwards with some potential and Royce White and which last offseason dumped Scola after all of his years of loyalty, but the facts speak for themselves.  A large part of the manhandling which the Boston bench delivered in the second quarter was thanks to Jared Sullinger, a rookie selected with the 20th pick in 2012.  Sullinger and his rear end worked together to outmuscle and outrebound Morris and Patterson repeatedly, drawing at least 8 rebounds in the first half alone and finishing with 14 points on 7-8 shooting and 11 rebounds, which was more points and rebounds than Patterson and Morris compiled combined in 38 minutes of play.  Patterson has fallen to 35% from beyond the arc, barely above average now, and Morris was hardly better shooting tonight. It was an ugly, ugly game at a position which has been Houston’s weakest by far.  If the Rockets intend to make a push for the playoffs (something which it should be noted is not necessarily an urgent and overwhelming priority), a solid, stronger PF will no doubt be useful.
  • While I did just finish lambasting Morris for his poor play tonight, there was one play which occurred during the middle of the third quarter that I thought was particularly interesting, where the Rockets passed it down to Morris at the baseline, who promptly tried to back it down and use dribble drive to get past his defender.  It failed and Rondo stole the ball from Morris, but hopefully it does showcase that McHale, the post master supreme in his playing days, realizes the importance of an interior presence.  Championship teams have always had a big who can take it inside, a formula which I believe still has not changed even in this new era of faster basketball.  I do not know whether Morris, who was advertised to have a strong post game when Houston drafted him but has hardly showcased it, will be the answer to that problem, and in fact I doubt it.  But a simple acknowledgment that Houston must improve the inside offensive skill of their big men is an important first step.
  • Among the few positives in this game was the return of Chandler Parsons to his original form as he scored 18 points on efficient shooting, and Jeremy Lin, who had six assists without a turnover. Parsons made two threes, one from the top of the key, which is a good sign given how much his shooting has struggled over the past few weeks.

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About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.