With just over 22 minutes left in the game, the Houston Rockets led the Orlando Magic by 25 points. Houston had been in command the entire game, even without Chandler Parsons (food poisoning) and James Harden (sore foot). Twenty minutes later, twenty points had been shaved off that lead, giving a short-handed Magic squad a real shot at stealing a win from the Rockets. With Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin sitting the entire fourth quarter after turning in fantastic performances, it was up to the bench to outlast the Magic and win by 8.
Jeremy Lin stepped up his game with Harden sitting on the sidelines in a powder blue blazer. Once again, Lin has shown that he has the ability to take over games and push the pace on any given night. He was once again benched for the entire fourth quarter, but once again it was largely because he played so well. He racked up 19 points on 50% shooting to go along with a fantastic 11 assists (and a good-enough 3 turnovers), all in only 30 minutes on the floor. He did everything he needed to, and he did it with confidence. While one could argue that fitting Harden and Lin together hasn’t fully happened yet, it’s clearly true that at worst having both of them offers a degree of depth and injury insurance.
Asik was a benefactor of Lin’s assists, and the Magic’s mediocre interior defense let him go on a dunking rampage. Asik led the Rockets with 22 points on a mere 13 attempts, as well as a tremendous 18 rebounds in only 28 minutes. Asik was playing stellar defense while he was on the court, and the team defense looked more coordinated with him at the center. While the inexperienced Magic frontcourt may be an easy target for Asik, it’s to his credit that this is true in only his third season.
Greg Smith got the start at power forward again, and he looked to be making a case for his long-term inclusion. He came out of the gate hot, backing his man down and showing some solid looking post moves. His 12 points on 8 shots suggest that he’s widening his offensive game, and that could be very valuable for the Rockets. While he’s unlikely to be the long term solution at the four, having offensive threats on the bench is never bad. On the other side of the ball, he’s playing better as well. He only grabbed 4 boards, but his man defense is improving. Head coach Kevin McHale values defensive effort highly, and it’s good to see players working to make progress there.
Francisco Garcia got the start with Parsons sitting out, and over the past few game’s he’s been playing with intensity. It may be that he wants to prove his value over the similarly-skilled Carlos Delfino. Whatever the case, he’s made a good case for himself, scoring 14 points on a mere 6 shots. He also racked up 5 assists and never turned it over, making for a very positive line. His defensive effort has been decent if not remarkable, and he has a quality coaches love: experience. If Garcia can continue to settle into his role as an efficient shooter off the bench, he can become a real asset to the team in a potential playoff run.
His brother is three point shootings, Carlos Delfino, didn’t fare as well, hitting only 1 of his 10 three point attempts. His 6 rebounds and 2 assists (and no turnovers) are good, but his shooting has fallen off lately. Whether its’ simply an unlucky streak or that something is off, the most helpful thing he did tonight was to hit free throws late in the game. When the Magic began to intentionally foul, he became the go-t0 free throw shooter. Of course, a couple more made threes would have prevented that to begin with.
James Anderson started instead of James Harden, but had a poor run of it. His 8 rebounds were great, but his 3-12 shooting wasn’t. He was open on many of his looks, and he seems to be putting in the effort, so once again it may simply be a spate of poor shooting. He led a brigade of bad shooting from the remainder of the Rockets, including 4-11 from Donatas Motiejunas, 2-9 from Thomas Robinson, and 2-8 for Patrick Beverley. None of them had noteworthy games otherwise, which was a large part of the reason why the Rockets came close to losing after a blowout three quarters.
McHale decided that the entire fourth quarter was garbage time, and let Asik and Lin sit the rest of the game. Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn didn’t agree, and let his (admittedly injury-hobbled) starting unit close out the game. The Magic fought back while the Rockets struggled, and the lead quickly dwindled. While they pulled the game out, it was far closer than it needed to be. The upside of this is that McHale seems to now be looking forward to the playoffs, getting rest for his starters wherever possible. As long as this doesn’t entirely blow a lead and cause a costly loss, the logic makes sense. Houston will very likely be in the playoffs for the first time in years, and clearly McHale and his squad would love to win some games.
The Rockets are entering a very soft April slate of games, and starting with a win against Orlando was critical. It never felt close until the last two minutes, and the bench held on as they needed to do, even if they took a long way there. With Golden State still a game ahead of them for the sixth seed, the Rockets are going to need everything they have, even in a soft month, to try to catch up by the end of the season.