Houston may have come off of three generally unimpressive games, losing close games to Milwaukee and Washington before eking out a tough victory over the second worst team in the league, but the Rockets retain a 2.5 game lead over the Lakers for the final playoff spot. And if anything could wash off the stench of the recent struggles, it would be to virtually knock the rival Dallas Mavericks out of the playoff hunt over the next two games. The Rockets will play Dallas at the Toyota Center tonight, and will then travel north to play in Dallas on Wednesday night for the very next game for both teams. Winning both games would give the Rockets a seven-game lead with about 20 left to play, an almost insurmountable lead.
While Dallas is a below.500 team and currently five games behind Houston, they have defeated the Rockets in the two earlier contests. The first game was at the very height of OJ Mayo’s incredible start to the season caused by an absolutely unsustainable shooting streak from long range. Mayo knocked down 40 points compared to Harden’s 39 and created a host of overreactions as some wondered whether the Rockets pursued the wrong shooting guard. The second was the fifth game of the seven-game losing streak in January, where James Harden submitted a dreadful 5-23 shooting night for 20 points and a 19-0 Dallas run in the 1st quarter proved too much to overcome.
If there is anything which truly has to concern Houston tonight, it will be Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk has begun to play closer to his old self after missing 27 games with knee surgery and has scored 20 or more points in 4 of his last 5 games on 53% shooting. As the power forward rotation of Motiejunas, Robinson, and spot minutes from Delfino gave up 27 points to Tobias Harris on Friday night, one shudders to think of what Dirk will do to this frontcourt, especially since Omer Asik simply does not have the quickness to stay with Nowitzki and will be busy handling the offensively skilled Chris Kaman. One might expect Chandler Parsons to play Nowitzki, but then that would leave Motiejunas and Robinson playing the still athletic Shawn Marion.
The team around Nowitzki is no slouch either on the offensive end. While Mayo has cooled down significantly since his hot start to the season, he and starting point guard Darren Collison can put up points on a board if they are hot, which given the Houston defense is almost a guarantee that they will hit at least 3 Kobe-level jumpers each. The Dallas bench with a reinvented Vince Carter, Elton Brand, and Jae Crowder also pose a serious threat to a Houston bench depleted by the Robinson trade. While no team runs nearly as much as the Rockets, the Mavericks are the 5th fastest team in the league and frequently cherry pick for easy layups, led by Crowder and Marion. If that fails, they will generally dump it down to their offensive bigs in Dirk and Kaman, though Collison and Mayo both have a tendency to take shots which they truly should not bother with.
The Rockets should be able to have their way on the offensive end, however, as neither Kaman nor Nowitzki are exactly plus defenders. Dallas is also one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, something which the Rockets will still have to ensure does not become a Dallas advantage given Houston’s tendencies towards smallball.
Tonight’s game will be one with critical implications as the Western playoff race winds down, which means that Harden and Lin will need to have strong games, the shooters will need to be on, and Motiejunas and Robinson cannot be as incompetent defensively as they both were against Orlando. If all of those factors swing the right way, Houston can hopefully win the game and right what seems to be becoming a destabilized ship.
I’d also like to take this time with a few quick thoughts on the imminent Aaron Brooks signing. Rahat was never a fan of Brooks winning the MIP award, a prediction which seems all the more true as Brooks is currently at danger of falling out of the league less than three years after receiving the award. There is also no guarantee in the first place that Brooks will receive any minutes upon joining the team, as the Rockets are committed to Lin and Patrick Beverley has done far better than I had reasonably expected from him as a backup point guard. Those who seem to think that this is some sign of the Rockets preparing to jettison Lin should, to put it quite bluntly, take a chill pill. The midget point guard will likely take the place which I had expected Francisco Garcia to take when he arrived, namely that of a veteran shooter who can put up points in a hurry and may play a few minutes here and there.
Whether for the sake of an improved offense or out of simple nostalgia to bring back a key player from the 2009 Rockets, I know I will not be alone in hoping that Brooks regains his old form with his old team. It is however highly unlikely he plays in either game against Dallas– the Rockets cannot officially sign him until he clears waivers on Monday, and Coach McHale will obviously want to take some time to integrate Brooks onto the team.