Earlier in December, the Rockets produced their most dominant stretch of basketball for quite some time. The offense was clicking, allowing them to put up over 120 points in three consecutive games. Playing against the Western Conference’s big guns brought them back to earth for a while, but tonight they were able to rediscover their form and managed to cross the 120 point threshold yet again to run out confident winners against the Hawks.
After being held close in the first quarter, Houston broke the game open in the second. They were down 31-30 when Delfino connected on a three, sparking a 16-0 run and creating a lead the Rockets were able to ride the lead for the rest of the game. It also began the most noticeable trend on the night – whenever the team needed it, someone would hit a three pointer to extend or restore their points cushion. The result was a 16-29 night from behind the arc – a season high in three pointers made. Carlos Delfino and Marcus Morris did most of the damage, going 6-8 and 3-4 respectively.
What with it being New Year’s Eve, I’m going to keep the recap shorter than I would normally and just put up some observations:
- There was a second, slightly less visually identifiable trend the fueled the Rockets’ victory tonight, and that was restricting turnovers. They allowed just 9 in the entire game, which marks the first time this season they’ve committed fewer than 10 in a single night. It has been noticeable that in their recent wins the team has been a lot better at keeping control of the ball, but they regressed badly in their recent tilts with the Spurs and Thunder. I haven’t done any investigation into this, but there seems to be a strong correlation between the number of turnover the Rockets commit and their chances of winning the game. Might be worth doing some analysis of this at some point.
- Delfino was on fire tonight, but that shouldn’t be allowed to hide the fact that his shot selection is a bit wonky, especially in late game pressure situations. In the 4th quarter, the Hawks were attempting a comeback and had reduced the deficit to single digits. Delfino chose that time to hoist one of his ill-advised deep three pointers early in the shot clock, which only added to Atlanta’s momentum when it missed and provided a long rebound for Jeff Teague to run out with. I can tolerate that shot when the team is down and looking to get back into the game, but when the team is ahead it makes more sense to work the ball around and look for a better opportunity.
- With Parsons not having a great game (4 pts, 2-9 shooting, 1 assist, 0 rebounds), Delfino saw a lot more court time and also had to handle the ball a lot more. In the past his ball control has been a bit suspect, but he had a great night tonight with 8 assists and not a single turnover. It remains to be seen if he can provide this level of reliability going forwards, but being able to trust him with the ball on the occasional possession could be a nice added wrinkle going forwards.
- Patrick Patterson is still being eased back into the rotation after his bone bruise, so Marcus Morris continued to hold on to his starting position. The dynamic between the two is going to be interesting to watch as the season progresses. The box score would imply that Morris had a superior game tonight (15 points on 6-9 shooting including 3-4 from beyond the arc, 3 rebounds, 3 assists), and he did have a good game. Provided he continues to get his points in the flow of the offence instead of trying to do too much, he can be a huge plus to this team. On the eye test though, I thought Patterson (8 points on 3-5 shooting, 2-3 3pts, 4 rebounds, 2 assists) had a better game. The plus/minus numbers bear this out: Patterson was +23, Morris was -6.
- So what did Patterson do well? There were a few plays that stood out. During the Rockets’ big second quarter streak, he ran the pick-and-roll with Lin. After setting the screen, Patterson rolled to the rim and quickly sealed off Al Horford right under the basket. Lin was able to drive into the hole that had created as if Patterson had set a humongous screen and score with a short jump shot. In the second half, Patterson received a bullet pass on the left baseline. With a defender in his face, he was able to divert the pass to Smith under the basket for an easy finish. Very pretty. There was also a play where Patterson caught the ball just inside the three point line, took a couple of dribbles, hop-stepped past an on-rushing defender and was able to finish with the layup. It’s not often you see Patterson put the ball on the floor like that, but he seemed very much in control. If Patterson has even a bit of a drive threat in his game it should synergize very well with his increased range going forward.
- Harden continued to be efficient and get to the free throw line almost at will. It occurred to me as I was watching that I’ve never seen Harden miss out on a continuation call. When his predecessor Kevin Martin was looking to get to the line, he did not attack the basket so directly and as a result I remember there being a few times when the refs didn’t consider the awkward shots he threw up after the whistle to be free-throw worthy. On the other hand, Harden is constantly moving smoothly towards the basket and is therefore always ready to put up a shot. This makes it a lot harder for officials to rule that a shot was not a continuation play despite that being a point of emphasis recently.
- McHale seems to have settled on a potent three man rotation at the guard spots. Instead of having Lin and Douglas alternate at the point, he has been playing two of Lin, Harden and Douglas. This seems to be a neat way of staggering Lin and Harden’s minutes, and the Lin-Douglas combo was pretty effective tonight. This might in part have been because Parsons was having an off night – the other combination you might expect to see is Parsons and Delfino at the wing spots, but I don’t remember seeing any of that tonight.
- The trend of shooting guards going off against the team continued tonight. Lou Williams had a good game, going 9-16 for 21 points, but the surprise of the night for me was Josh Jenkins. He scored 15 points on 6-9 shooting and was instrumental in the late rally that Atlanta managed to pull themselves within 5. The rookie showed he had a decent outside shot and was pretty good on the drive too. His outburst was a career high, and reminded me somewhat of Chris Copeland’s outburst in the tilt against the Knicks earlier this month. The two are not exactly similar players, but in both cases they seized the opportunity to take advantage of what was some rather permissive defending from Houston. Going forward, Houston really needs to prevent this kind of lapse – allowing the opposing team to hang around means that the starters have to play for longer, tiring them out and preventing the youngsters at the end of the bench from seeing much time.
Happy New Year!