In a game like this against one of the worst teams in the league, the worst thing you can do is come out slow and complacent. Charlotte is not a team with a big come back in them. By putting up a big 20+ lead early and knocking the belief out of a team used to losing, you ensure you can relax later in the night, perhaps playing the reserves for a stretch. The mantra of “good teams know what to do in the crunch” isn’t really true, after all – if the level of the two teams is disparate enough, the better team should be pulling away in the first three quarters and not allowing there to even be a crunch time. The goal for the Rockets tonight was not just to win – that was expected – but to win comfortably against a team that is still in the NBA basement and only one year removed from the worst season in NBA history.
At the start of the first quarter, it seemed as though the Rockets had taken the advice to heart. A combination of Lin being pesky in the passing lanes (two early steals) and some good defensive possessions from Patterson meant that it took 3:41 for the Bobcats to register their first field goal. When the lead stretched to 16-4 after back-to-back three pointers from Parsons, the Rockets had made things look so easy that it felt inevitable they would streak off into the distance and leave Charlotte in the dust. Things didn’t continue that way though. On the offensive end, the presence of Biyombo seemed to blunt Lin’s drives somewhat, and the resulting kick-outs didn’t quite give the open looks you’d like. At the other end, Sessions and Walker were able to dial up their driving game to cause some threat. The net result was that they were able to bring the game back to within 5 at the end of the quarter.
There was an interesting development as the subs started to filter into the game – for tonight at least, Cole Aldrich appeared to have taken Greg Smith’s spot in the rotation. I’m unaware of any injuries to Smith, so perhaps McHale was taking the opportunity of weaker opposition to reassess Aldrich. Smith hasn’t been as effective in recent weeks, perhaps causing his grip on the backup C position to weaken slightly. Aldrich was able to find some openings out of the pick-and-roll for some easy buckets. The rotations from Charlotte were nothing to write home about and once the Rockets became attuned to this they were able to repeatedly hit the big man (Aldrich initially, and later Asik once he checked back in) for easy looks. Defensively though, Aldrich was unable to replicate Asik’s defensive dependability and was frequently late or out of position to help when Charlotte drove at the rim.
During the second quarter, the Bobcats continued to hang around. In general they did not look especially potent in the half-court, but they would run whenever they could and were able to cash in on a substantial number of transition opportunities. Earlier in the season the Rockets’ transition defense was a point of concern, and it’s still looking very permissive. As the quarter drew on though, the lead started to stretch because the Rockets were also off and running. They won the half 19-15 on fast-break points, and the real scoreboard was also firmly in their favour at 62-51.
The two standout performers overall in the half was Parsons, who racked up 19 points by halftime. He got them in a nice mix – there were the three pointers, there were some drives to the rim, and some easy buckets on the break. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his tip jam (first we’ve seen from him in a long while) off an Asik free throw miss. He came flying in from the three point line in a fashion reminiscent of the current Bobcat’s owner, it was very impressive.
The third quarter started out promisingly enough. The lead was teased out to 15 points as James Harden shook off a quiet (by his standards) first half with 7 quick points. But all of a sudden the Rockets started settling too much for the jumper and missing. Hesitation started creeping into the game – players were passing up open shots ending up with worse ones. Asik went to the bench, and in his place Aldrich could not provide either the same solidity on the defensive end or the same persistence on the offensive glass. Jeff Taylor was instrumental in closing the gap, ending the quarter with perfect 6-6 shooting numbers. The ground between the two teams was being eaten up before your eyes on the court, and when the dust had settled at the end of the quarter the lead was just 2.
So, after a puke-worthy end to the third quarter (true story actually – I’m suffering from a bad cough at the moment and genuinely did have to go and sit with my head over the toilet bowl for a few minutes between quarters), the fourth quarter started with one of the scariest things you’ll see on a basketball court – a player passed out unconscious. Michael Kidd Gilchrist was contesting a Toney Douglas layup attempt on the break, and in absorbing the contact was thrown backwards into an onrushing Jeff Taylor. He caught what appeared to be a hip to the back of the head and collapsed in a heap under the basket, where he lay for quite some time. After a long stoppage he was stretchered off – hopefully he is alright. The Rockets broadcast didn’t give any updates on his condition.
Once play continued, momentum continued to swing towards the Bobcats. Ben Gordon is always a threat to suddenly get hot, and he nailed back-to-back three pointers to suddenly open up a 5 point lead. The spectre of the jump-pass had returned, with Lin committing a couple of turnovers by looking for the kick-out too late to be able to do anything else. You could see the Bobcats picking up more and more confidence with every possession. Jumpers were hitting nothing but net and their rotations looked a lot sharper on the defensive end. If the Rockets were going to turn it around, they needed someone to start stepping up.
As it turned out, that person was Patrick Patterson. Coach Dunlap decided to put a small lineup on the floor – four shooters spacing the floor around Biyombo. Smallball has become the trendy tactic recently, but what ensued was a triumph for traditional lineups. Patterson started out with a couple of important three pointers that ensured his man had to pay attention to him, then took advantage of his smaller defender (6’7″ Taylor had the duty) to get free inside. Add in some energetic running on the break, and you end up with a grand total of 14 fourth quarter points for him, enough to break the Bobcats’ resistance and lead the Rockets to a relieving 14 point victory.
A few more thoughts in bullet point form:
- James Harden put the icing on the cake once the pendulum had swung back to the Rockets for the last time by recording his first career triple double. There was no point in the proceedings when he could have been said to have been dominating, but he did an excellent job in the pick and roll all night. There were a lot of very nice feeds to the big men that show up in his assist totals, and he was able to get to 21 points on only 11 shots, once again displaying his customary efficiency.
- One of the storylines coming into the game tonight was whether Jeremy Lin would be able to better his performance in the matchup between these two teams, when he was comprehensively outplayed by Kemba Walker. Lin had hands in the passing lanes all night to end up with three steals, and a couple of very nice individual plays against Walker. On one possession he completely fooled Walker with a crossover (there was a very audible expletive from Kemba as Lin slid past him), but unfortunately the end product wasn’t there so it probably won’t make the highlight reels. In the second half, Jeremy appeared to have been beaten on a back door cut to the basket only to somehow recover and deny the shot at the rim. The downside to what appeared to be some extra effort was that he got back into the bad habit of the jump-pass, as I mentioned earlier. Biyombo can be a pretty imposing figure to drive into the lane against, but in previous games when confronted with that situation Lin would have kept his dribble alive and continued to probe for an opening.
- Overall, I would grade the Aldrich experiment as a failure. He had a couple of decent finishes in the pick-and-roll, but those are Smith’s bread and butter anyway. Apart from that there were few positives to be gleaned. He looked weak defensively (there’s a good reason why the team was +26 when Asik was on the floor but -12 when Aldrich was) and wasn’t able to attack the offensive glass anywhere near as well as Asik or Smith does. I’d prefer to keep Smith in the backup centre position for now.
- Jeff Adrien was one of the Rockets’ D-League callups last season. In the limited minutes we got to see him for, I felt as though he was lacking the athleticism that he would need to succeed at the NBA level given his lack of size. Patrick Patterson definitely won the battle of the PFs tonight, but it’s good to see the guy get a longer shot at playing his way into a long term NBA role.
- Delfino played only 7 minutes tonight before leaving with a strained elbow. According to Feigen this is an issue that has been around for a while, but flared up especially badly tonight. It remains to be seen whether he’ll have recovered for the first tilt of the year against the Warriors on Tuesday.