The Houston Rockets have turned in lethargic games against sub-.500 teams recently, losing to the Suns, Mavs and Wizards. As the season winds down and the playoff race heats up, it’s increasingly important to win the easy games on the schedule. A home game against an ailing Cleveland Cavaliers team was the only oasis left before a brutal late March schedule, and Houston knew they had to win, and win convincingly. The effort they put in was so convincing that the bench played nearly half the game’s minutes in a 38-point blowout. It’s time to take care of business for Houston, and they did just that.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were missing three key players in Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters. They had just taken the Miami Heat to the edge of defeat two days earlier, and were looking to hang tough despite the deck being stacked against them. Unfortunately for Cleveland, despite playing a competitive first quarter, the Rockets sounded the charge in the second and never looked back. The Rockets ended the night with a gaudy 57.1% from the field, a 22 rebound advantage and a 38 point differential despite giving up 22 turnovers.
Jeremy Lin and Aaron Brooks were the only Rockets who shot poorly from the field, with Lin’s 2-7 coming on the back of a number of aggressive drives with poor finishes. Brooks shot only two three pointers, and the fact that the third string point guard missed two threes isn’t worrisome in the least. Lin’s recent streak of 20 point games ends with a 4 point outing, but he posted 6 assists (and 3 turnovers) in a mere 20 minutes. Early garbage time took over a lot of the starters’ minutes, and Lin was no exception. While he may not have succeeded on his attacks, it’s important that he continue to do so. One of his best moves was a sudden mid-range jumper after creating some space, and it’s this kind of unpredictability which will keep defenses guessing.
James Harden scored 20 points on 9 shots, more than making up for his so-so peripherals on the night (1 rebound, 2 assists, 2 steals, 4 turnovers). He continues to draw double teams, and he continues to blow past defenders in isolation. While Cleveland’s defense may not be the best test of his prowess (27th in the league), it’s still impressive that he’s able to find the open lane as well as he does. On the other side of the ball, Harden’s effort continues to frustrate. He’s improving little by little on defense, but he still has a tendency to get out of position and to put in only token defense. If he were to expend full energy on that end, it’s likely he could be a solid defender. But with him providing so much of the offense, it may not be quite that simple.
The team defense was effective if not solid, keeping the Cavs to a palrty 78 points. Asik patrolled the paint as normal, logging a 13 point, 11 rebound double double (with a block to go with it). Apart from his normal putbacks and one-foot-away finishes, Asik was given a couple of possessions to try to create, including one in which he pump-faked Tyler Zeller out of his socks on the way to a layup. Asik seems to have some leeway to try to work on his offense during games, and it’s nice to see him incrementally improving. He’s no post up threat, but he’s gradually developing as best as he can.
Donatas Motiejunas, on the other hand, has no qualms at all with shooting the ball. He had a decent night, hitting 3-5 shots for 10 points and grabbing a passable 4 boards. He drew a couple fouls on drives to the basket after getting his man out of position, and he’s happy to set up shop in the corner to wait for the pass. The ongoing development of Motiejunas is of great concern to the team, and he continues to be as good as he needs to be to hold fellow rookie Thomas Robinson at bay for the starting position. Terrence Jones, however, just shredded the opposition (31 points, only missed one shot) in his game with Houston’s D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, so there may be some competition for minutes soon.
Chandler Parsons, of course, remains reliable for the Rockets, giving his team a very respectable 13 points on 11 shots to go with 4 rebounds and a block. In fact, it was a block party of sorts for the Rockets, as Patrick Beverly and Aaron Brooks also blocked a shot each, and Thomas Robinson notched 2. Brooks and Beverly both looked smart on their blocks, Beverley stopping a three from behind, and Brooks stuffing a layup that was late enough in the game to not really matter.
The bench played 117 minutes out of 240, and after a rough go in the second quarter, they ended the evening by piling onto an already 20-point lead. Apart from a decent Luke Walton, the depleted Cavs bench looked wan all evening, and the Rockets reserves ran them up and down the court mercilessly. Every Rockets bit player had something to prove, and they came out guns blazing. Apart from Brooks’ oh-fer, Delfino’s 8 points on 3-7 shooting was the worst field goal percentage of the bunch. Robinson especially had a solid outing, scoring 15 points on 6-7 field goals as well as 6 boards.
Greg Smith made a good case for his place as backup center by pulling down a game-high 13 rebounds and being very selective with his attempts (2-3). James Anderson and Francisco Garcia entered late, but did what they could to state their cases, shooting a combined 8-11.
After a ho-hum first quarter, every Rocket looked engaged and aggressive against a weakened Cavs team. While pushing the lead to 38 in garbage time may not be a monumental achievement, Houston had to have a huge win to look convincingly like a real playoff team. There’s little to feel bad about in a game where the Rockets simply took care of business and played the game they were expected to play. It’s the rest of the month that’s the hard part.