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Houston Rockets 108, Orlando Magic 104: Offensive Philosophy Theft Alert!

The Rockets’ first game back on US soil came against a Magic team bursting at the seams with young and talented players. From Vucevic to Harkless, from Nicholson to Oladipo, there are many names on this Orlando team that we could well be hearing about for many years to come. It looks like it might be another season or two before they put it all together though, as despite showing flashes of good play they weren’t able to string together consistent stretches of good play.  After coming out and looking sloppy and allowing the Magic to get a small lead, the Houston starters were re-inserted halfway through the second quarter and built a lead by halftime that the team would not relinquish for the rest of the game (though it was briefly tense at the end). Howard and Harden sat out the entirety of the second half as McHale got a chance to watch his subs play out the game.

Observations:

  • Parsons (coach’s decision) and Lin (illness) sat out tonight, so McHale started the game with a lineup of Beverley-Harden-Garcia-Casspi-Howard. A time-traveller from about 5 years ago would have rubbed their eyes in disbelief as they watched the innovative Orlando offense they were very familiar with, but on the other side of the court to where they would expect! The array of shooters fanned out neatly around Howard’s interior presence, and lined up to take pot-shot after pot-shot from the outside. It was impressive how three-ball orientated the team looked from the outset – they started with consecutive three pointers and never looked back. The stats tell the story – in the first half the team was 11-22 from behind the arc as opposed to just 9-21 from inside. I really liked the look of this group and more importantly I think this general blueprint is one that McHale should be using a lot once the games begin in earnest, particularly if the man with PF duties can do his job defensively (more on that below).
  • Early in the game the Rockets really struggled with their entry passes. Vucevic did a lot of fronting, and the Magic did a good job of providing help when the Rockets attempted to throw it into the post. The lobs were high or off target, and it meant that Howard was unable to establish himself in the post. The slow lobs took a lot of his attention and made it difficult to spot the double team coming. They also gave the help defender enough time to get across and challenge on the catch, which is a recipe for disaster and led to several turnovers. The one time when Harden did throw an effective entry pass, Howard converted with a smooth move to the hoop. It showed just how critical a skill it is for the team to perfect. If Howard’s focus on posting up continues into the regular season and the team is unable to get him the ball there, it will lead to a lot of wasted possessions.
  • Because of the poor entry passes Howard was rather quiet tonight on the offensive end, scoring 8 points on 2-6 shooting (4-6 from the free throw line). He was able to make his presence felt defensively though – he had three excellent blocked shots and generally looked engaged and active.
  • On the first play of the game, Howard caught the ball in the post and went up for a shot, only to have it blocked by Vucevic. When a timeout was called a few plays later, you could see McHale motioning to Howard and showing him what he should have done to get it off cleanly. It’s great that McHale is able to provide such instant and effective feedback, and it certainly sounds like Howard is respectful enough of him to take instruction.  Keeping that good working relationship between the two will be important during the long slog of the regular season, particularly since there will be much more media scrutiny than the team is used to.
  • I tried to pay attention to Omri Casspi’s play tonight. For once his shot was off – going 2-10 overall. But I thought he added plenty of value to the team even when he wasn’t putting the ball in the bucket. He did an excellent job on the glass and helped keep the ball moving around nicely on the perimeter, ending up with 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Defensively he more than held his own when matched up against Nicholson, who is also something of a stretch four. He was posed one or two problems by the bigger Jason Maxiell, but overall I was very encouraged by his play and he definitely looks like a legitimate option for minutes at the power forward. He and Garcia worked very well together defensively – frequently they would combine to trap Casspi’s man on the baseline to good effect and the Rockets were able to force several turnovers that way.
  • In the second quarter we got to see Reggie Williams’ first action in a Rockets uniform. He showed plenty of effort on defence and looked to have good instincts on that end – I thought he made solid decisions about when to gamble for steals, for example. He was matched up with Oladipo and occasionally struggled to contain the younger man’s speed, but my impression was that overall he was solid on that end. Offensively he showed a willingness to take the three point shot when he was open, but I didn’t see a whole lot more from him to be excited about. He’s got a lot of ground to make up after missing the first three games, and I think he’ll have to be a bit more dynamic than he was in this outing to have a chance of staying on the roster.
  • D-Mo had a horror show in the second quarter. He couldn’t seem to do anything right, whether it was unnecessary off ball fouls or throwing in-bounds passes straight to the other team. Two turnovers and a couple of missed box outs rounded out an awful showing. He did manage to grab a couple of offensive boards and sunk a three (there were two other misses from range though), but overall it was an evening I’m sure he’d rather forget. The impression I get is that Motiejunas is prone to extended funks like this, especially when something goes wrong for him early. I can’t imagine the coaching staff are going to be comfortable letting him anywhere near the starting spot until he sorts it out. Consistency is what you want from your starting unit, and that is not Donatas’ middle name just yet.
  • Before this game, Aaron Brooks was one of the players I felt shouldn’t be on the roster come the start of the season. However tonight he went some way towards changing my mind. In the past I’ve felt like he was too ball dominant and didn’t allow the offence to develop, but here he was able to get some flow going and found a better balance between distributing and looking for his own shot. I was especially impressed by his passing – he set up some great looks, many of which came off very pretty whipped passes. He was able to get Motiejunas free very easily in a pick-and-pop type play and found him often. It could be that he was able to get into a better rhythm by being the only PG on the court. In previous outings he has tended to play as part of dual-PG lineups, but with Lin being out he was handed the reins more completely. Whatever the reason, I’m glad to see him showing signs that he’s worth keeping around – more competition for places is always a good thing!
  • Late in the game, E’tawn Moore led a rally that brought the Magic within 2 and gave them a shot of stealing it late. It was initially Canaan’s job to stay in front of him but after a couple of possessions they had to switch him and Brooks because Isaiah really struggled to deal with Moore’s speed. It looks as though Canaan is going to have to put in some work to get to the point where he can live with the speed of the NBA game. (You may or may not remember that Moore was actually a Houston Rocket for a brief while in the 2012 offseason. He looked pretty good here!)
  • With the game suddenly close as time winded down, the Rockets opted to foul up three. It’s one of those enduring debates that has never quite been resolved one way or the other. Personally I dislike it unless you have a lot of confidence in the free-throw shooting abilities of the players you have on the court as it relies on your team being able to knock them down if need be. As it was, Solomon Jones made one of two and the Magic sent Covington to the line to ice the game.
  • According to Feigen, Greg Smith is still having trouble with his hip injury, which explains why he didn’t play tonight. I’m fairly confident he will make the final roster cut given his history with the team, but hopefully at some point he’ll be able to get some time on the court to reinforce that advantage in the games to come.
  • Some curios:
    • Somehow Harden has been able to record exactly 21 points in every game so far, and he continued his unnerving consistency tonight despite only playing 18 minutes. Even after a season of watching him at work it’s still uncanny how easily he racks up the points. It seems to me that he has been relying on his outside shot for his scoring more than he did last year, but that might just be because for the time being it’s going in at a 50% clip.
    • In the third quarter the Rockets put out a lineup of Beverley-Brewer-Garcia-Casspi-Jones. A couple of times you could catch all five of them standing outside the three point line!
    • In one of the timeouts they showed a clip of Daryl Morey doing some Eminem karaoke with Canaan, Covington and Smith. It cracked me up! You just don’t see most GMs being that willing to make a fool of themselves.
    • The Magic put on a full-court press for the last three minutes of the game. Not something you see all that often at the NBA level. It didn’t really work very well – the Rockets were able to advance the ball without too much trouble.

In summary, I think this was a good opportunity for McHale to try out a different starting combination, one that has great potential going forward. The team played well despite missing a few key faces, and a lot of the backup bench guys got their chance at some more substantial minutes. In short, a perfect pre-season game!

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