The Rockets came in looking to rebound from two painful losses in a row. In theory, this team was supposed to be a pushover – one of the weakest teams in the league due to a combination of youthful inexperience and injuries. It didn’t quite turn out that way though.In similar fashion to the game against Milwaukee, Houston came out firing on all cylinders. They were draining threes and getting to the rim at will for layups, either out of the pick-and-roll or by getting the ball in to Asik after sucking away help defenders. Once again though they were dragged back to level pegging due to a combination of defensive malaise and superior execution from the opposition. This time the blame can’t be placed solely on the bench though, as the slide began before Asik checked out of the game. It was more to do with the excellence of Tobias Harris than anything else (more on that later).The trends we saw in the first game with regards to the new power forward tandem would continue tonight. Motiejunas looks more and more comfortable as every game goes by. You can see he’s starting to play a bit more under control – gone are the wild flailings that occasionally accompanied his garbage time minutes in the first half of the season, and in their place has come a steadier and much more promising player. He’s still doing a great job of drifting out to the three point line – I’m very comfortable letting him shoot the corner three much in the same way Patterson did. Would prefer him to avoid taking above-the-break ones though, as he has a much poorer conversion rate on those – just 1/6 coming into the game and that was not improved by the two he took in the first half. He popped up in the right place at the right time to finish a couple of plays at the basket, and in the second half displayed a couple of dazzling post moves. What was a little disappointing was his defense. The Magic commentators picked up on his deficiencies, and rightly so – Andrew Nicholson caught him flat-footed multiple times during the game and he also got blown by a couple of times on drives from the perimeter. He wasn’t helped by strategy he adopted on pick-and-rolls – he spent most of his time hedging very strongly, and it didn’t take long for the Magic to catch on. Nicholson began rolling hard to the hoop and was rewarded with a couple of easy buckets. He needs to improve his defensive stance, which at the moment is far too upright. If he can get a bit lower and onto the balls of his feet, he should avoid some of the more egregious defensive lapses in the future. 17 points on on 7-12 shooting is a nice stat-line, but he was not able to get on the boards tonight all that much (3 rebounds) and the passing that set mouths salivating in the Bucks game was absent.Robinson looked a little better tonight at the beginning, but still did not have a particularly good time. He was comprehensively outplayed by his opposite number Tobias Harris, unable to contain his quicker opponent, and also struggled to establish himself on the boards – an area of concern given that is supposed to be his strength. He got time in the second quarter at power forward, but then late in the third McHale tried to experiment with playing him at centre as part of an ultra-small lineup for a couple of possessions: Lin, Harden, Parsons, Delfino, Robinson. It didn’t go very well, though that was more because Tobias Harris (that name again!) was abusing Delfino in a mismatch than because of anything Robinson was doing. He tried posting up veteran Al Harrington at one point, but as soon as he turned to face him up Harrington just grabbed the ball away from him – it didn’t look particularly good. Later on he also dribbled the ball straight into the hands of a Magic player – it was not pretty.To start the game, Harden looked as though he was feeling the effects of the ankle injury he sustained last night, but he did seem to warm up as the game wore on. He doesn’t put in great effort on the defensive end at the best of times, but he was noticeably trailing behind Afflalo for much of the game. He made up for it by intelligently harassing Afflalo by going for steals from behind – it seemed to unsettle his man and got him out of his rhythm a bit, so the net result wasn’t as bad as it could have been. In the third quarter he started to reassert himself with a few isolation plays – normally I am very much against that sort of thing, but it felt like they got his juices flowing and reawakened him after a slow first half (4 points on 1-5 shooting). Perhaps because his driving game didn’t feel so comfortable, he instead was looking to get to the elbow and shooting jump shots – it felt uncharacteristic for him, but he was swishing them all. It’s obviously an area that he’s worked on a lot even if he doesn’t tend to use it all that much. He finished with a quiet 22 points on 7-18 shooting – not a great night by his standards. But it’s nights like these, more so than the games where he explodes, that hammer home his brilliance – even when he’s not playing well, he can still casually toss in 22 points and lead the team in scoring. Such a luxury to have him on the team.The third quarter overall was disappointing – some half time adjustments by the Magic meant the Rockets were unable to generate the three point looks their accustomed to and as a result the offense bogged down a bit. The midrange and the post up are generally the two least efficient play types available, but in very uncharacteristic fashion they seemed to be what the Rockets were settling for. The defence was leaving a lot to be desired, allowing Orlando to hang around – the Magic took a one point lead into the final frame.What seemed to galvanize the team was the play of Beverley. I know a lot of people are gushing over Motiejunas at the moment, but Beverley has very quickly grown into my favourite Rocket to watch since he started getting playing time. Whether it was picking up the opposing point guard full court, diving in for steals and deflections, sinking his threes or making some pretty runners in the lane, you could count on him to put in maximum effort on the court. The degree of hustle he brings can’t help but drag the rest of the team along with him. He was the engine room behind an 11-0 run that blew the game open in the fourth quarter as he and Harden were able to generate some steals and get out on the break. His was doing so well that McHale decided to leave him on the floor down the stretch over Lin, and despite a late Rockets wobble that allowed the Magic to get within 5, the Rockets were able to hold on for the victory.This win was far from impressive – the defense was full of holes and they allowed a team who haven’t had a lot of close games recently (and only 2 of the last 20 have been wins). But given the last two games, winning the game was far more important than style points. When the Magic threatened to make a comeback late the Rockets were able to hold them off and prevent the game from getting close – they will need to learn from that and try to apply the same concepts to the tougher teams they’ll face down the road.Before tonight, the Magic were one of only two teams remaining in the league the Rockets have yet to play (the other is Phoenix, which is absurd because they still have to play each other four times). Combine that with a lack of coverage from mainstream media, and I realised that I’ve barely seen Orlando play all year. There were plenty of observations then to be made about this team.
- First of all, let me just say that the Orlando announcers are some of the best and most intelligent-sounding announcers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to call a game so far this season (along with Ian Eagle and the Brooklyn crew). They’re not only knowledgeable about their own team, but had done plenty of preparation on the visitors and actually spent a fair amount of time discussing the Rockets’ situation. This was a breath of fresh air after all of the extreme homers you find elsewhere on the League Pass dial (including, I’m sorry to say, our own broadcasting crew). They showed a willingness to refer to non-traditional statistics (like Corner 3% out from overall 3pt%, for example), and didn’t show too much bias when evaluating the referees calls – while they did take the Magic’s side on them most of the time, I usually felt like they had a legitimate point. They also didn’t make any obvious factual errors (or at least not any that I noticed), which was very refreshing (I’m looking at you, Bill Worrell). They were willing to rag on the Houston defense a little, but that was justified given how the team were playing. Can’t say enough good stuff about these guys.
- The Magic’s cohort of young big men look like they’re going to be excellent in the near future. Vucevic gave Asik a tough battle on the boards (although overall I thought Asik just shaved it), and both he and his starting frontcourt-mate Andrew Nicholson had good games, showing touch not just from around the rim but also from out to around the elbows and the 15-18 foot range. The real surprise though was Tobias Harris. He was playing PF, but looked like more of a tweener given his extreme mobility. He came out blazing hot, quickly putting up 13 points on 6-8 shooting in his first half stint, and just kept on going en route to a 24 point 10 rebound night. He had the outside shot going and also looked very capable at getting into the paint on the drive. Looked good on the post-up too when he got the chance against the smaller Delfino in the third. On this viewing he appeared to have the complete package offensively, and I didn’t notice any glaring defensive errors either. It’s strange how great he’s looking given how little playing time he got in Milwaukee – the perils of getting in Scott Skiles’ doghouse, I suppose. But if he can continue in this form, he’s going to be an amazing player in not all that long. Definitely someone to keep an eye on.
- Where the Magic looked lacking was in the backcourt – Jameer Nelson was out tonight, so E’twaun Moore (who was actually released by Houston during the offseason as they tried to sift through the mass of fringe players they received in trades) got the start. He looked like a reasonable game manager but didn’t really produce much offensively. Beno Udrih was a bit more lively when he came into the game, sparking a few fast breaks. Afflalo, the player who at the time was considered to be the centrepiece of the Dwight Howard summer blockbuster trade, was pretty quiet tonight. he was able to get some separation from Harden, particularly in the first half, but was unable to translate that into points very well. One guy who did look good was small forward Maurice Harkless. He reminds me a bit of Parsons from last season – decent stroke from the outside (3/4 on threes) and looked to be a competent defender for the most part. He did get embarrassed at one point when he celebrated making a three on his way back down the court while Parsons leaked out for an easy layup attempt, but other than that was very solid. As a whole, the Magic seemed to be content to let their big guys do all the heavy lifting, and while they did a great job tonight, I think down the stretch they could have done with a steadier hand on the ball to get them into their offense and break free of Beverley’s pestering coverage.
- On the whole, I can understand why they’ve lost a lot of games this year (the team they put out on the floor was pretty raw), but their cadre of young players all look very promising. These guys are going to be good in a few years time – their post-Dwight rebuilding phase seems to have gone impeccably if tonight’s game is any evidence.
Finally, I leave you with a nice quote from Harden in the post game interview:Interviewer: [paraphrased] “What will be the areas of focus for the Rockets down the stretch?”Harden: “Our consistency and our attention to detail. You know, we’re a young team but we’ve got to focus on the small things, and I think that’s going to get us over the hump.”I couldn’t agree more. Despite some lapses tonight, the Rockets got the win. The question is, can they fix up the little issues well enough to stay afloat in the Western Conference Playoff Race? For that, you’ll just have to tune in next time.