If there has been one thing that Houston has unfortunately done far too often this season, it has been blowing major leads. Against the Clippers, Raptors, 76ers, Knicks, and others, the Rockets have had a double-digit lead late into the game, only to blow it for one reason or another. Tonight however, Houston managed to gain the early lead as they raced to a 28-14 score, and other than a brief scare at the beginning of the second half when the Denver Nuggets closed to within 66-59, had little problems holding it for the duration of the game. A balanced effort at the beginning and Dwight Howard’s thwarting of the Hack-a-Howard strategy proved to be the key.
- Onto the free throws, because they are unfortunately going to be the main story which comes out of this game despite the great resiliency and effort which the entire Rockets crew displayed tonight. Houston led 98-86 with 5:48 left, which from Denver’s perspective was a large but not entirely insurmountable lead. Nevertheless, rookie head coach Brian Shaw decided to hack Howard over the next 2:30. It never really worked in slowing down Houston’s offense – Howard only missed both free attempts once, and that time Terrence Jones grabbed the offensive rebound. Dwight clearly grew more comfortable with his foul shooting as the hacking stretch wore on, but Shaw kept up with it until Dwight made six straight free throws and Houston had expanded the lead to 115-101. Howard went 12-19 from the line during the hacking stretch, and 17-24 for the night. He managed 25 points on 6 attempts due to the hacking strategy, which is in fact the second highest amount of points that anyone has ever managed with that few field goals (Detlef Schrempf had 26 points on 6 attempts in 1994.) Good job, Dwight.
- What was concerning about the Hack-a-Howard strategy, despite Howard’s successes at the line, was that Houston’s defense got significantly worse during that stretch. Some of that could be credited to some difficult 3 pointers from Ty Lawson, but Denver managed to run much more successfully then as opposed to the rest of the game, when Houston largely contained the fast break, and Houston’s rotations were much worse as opposed to a more traditional half-court game. There were multiple instances during the end of the game when the Nuggets would fire a long pass to Lawson, who would then drive past Harden and lay it in before Dwight Howard could properly get back. That, however, will just require time to work as the chemistry progresses.
- The other major story was Houston’s power forwards. Houston started Jones at the power forwards as it has done the last few games, but Coach Kevin McHale then surprised me by not just sending out Donatas Motiejunas, but by sending out Donatas Motiejunas as the center in a smallball lineup against Denver backup center Timofey Mozgov, who is 7’2’’ and 260 lbs. Surprisingly it worked, both when Motiejunas played center and when he moved to the 4 slot when Howard came back about 6 minutes later. There wasn’t much Motiejunas showed that wasn’t known already. He displayed good post skills, made his sole 3 pointer, ran the floor, and struggled to defend both Mozgov and the paint in general. In addition, he repeatedly hedged way too far on Ty Lawson in the pick-and-roll, and the speedy point guard took advantage of these defensive mistakes. It was a very good effort from Motiejunas, as he finished with 12 points on 5-6 shooting, and his defense was relatively better compared to his rookie season. I think it is clear that he is behind Terrence Jones in the rotation, as Jones also had a very good game, finishing with 14 points, 12 rebounds, and played much better defense. But with whatever is going on with Asik these days ( who again sat out of tonight’s game supposedly due to feeling under the weather), Motiejunas is a capable big man backup.
- Seven Houston players finished in double-digit scoring tonight, namely all of the starters, Jeremy Lin, and Motiejunas. It was a strong effort really from all of them, with the possible exception of Harden who was relatively quiet with 17 points (though 9 assists.) Patrick Beverley’s 3 point shot came back, Chandler Parsons jumpstarted the Rockets to the initial lead by scoring 8 of Houston’s first 10 points, and Lin drove at will with both hands. Tonight may have been a game that Houston was expected to win against a Nuggets team in transition from the George Karl era, but it was the best game that the Rockets have played in quite some time.