The Rockets were handed the benefit of the schedule tonight as the Minnesota Timberwolves came into town off the back of an overtime game against Dallas the night before. Though the Timberwolves came out of the gates quickly, they faded noticeably as the game went on and the Rockets slowly but surely pushed the game out of reach. In their second consecutive clinical showing, the battle hardening that comes from playing a string of playoff contenders was in full evidence – the team played efficiently and from the moment they drew level in the second quarter the result never really seemed in doubt. A very balanced attack (7 players in double figures) and some hot shooting from behind the arc allowed them to blast their way to 129 points, and it’s difficult to lose if you can put that many on the board in regulation.
- Both teams were missing their starting centres tonight, but that hurt the Timberwolves a lot more than the Rockets. For Houston it was a further chance to see Asik get extended minutes, and their excellent depth means that they have plenty of big bodies to fill the void on the bench. Minnesota promoted Gorgui Dieng in the absence of Nikola Pekovic, and while he played very well there was a distinct lack of cover when he and Love went to the bench (normally Turiaf would play that role for the Wolves but he was also injured tonight). It’s worth highlighting the incredible performance of Dieng though – he finished with 22 points and 21 rebounds! On this evidence he looks to be a bright prospect for the Timberwolves’ future. Maybe there are some decent rookies lurking among the weeds after all.
- I was really encouraged by what I saw from Asik tonight. Since coming back from his knee injury he has looked tentative and uncoordinated, but tonight (after shaking off the rust in an opening stint where he was thoroughly outplayed by Dieng) he showed signs of significant improvement. What was most encouraging was that he seemed comfortable receiving the ball just inside the dotted line in the paint – much further out than his regular comfort zone. Several times tonight he had the ball in this area and was able to take the ball to the basket, either finishing or getting fouled. Even at his best last year this was not something he was capable of doing consistently, and the further he can extend his finishing range around the basket the more valuable he becomes. He also continued to set crunching picks that got the guards open time and time again for three point shots. Kirk Goldsberry recently talked to Truehoop about how the screen-setting is the most undervalued skill in basketball, and on the basis of tonight I think Asik would probably have scored very highly.
- Another player who had an excellent game for the Rockets tonight was Donatas Motiejunas. This was probably the best I’ve seen him play all season – he was confident and fluid in the post, active defensively but without picking up the silly fouls he seems to get tagged with all the time, and seemed to be hitting everything he tried. He finished with 20 points (on 9-11 shooting) and 6 rebounds. What I saw from him tonight was a level of clinicalness that I haven’t seen before, especially when matched up against a smaller defender. When both teams went small in the second quarter he feasted against the 6’8″ Dante Cunningham, and he made no mistake whenever he found himself in the paint against the diminutive JJ Barea. It remains to be seen if he can maintain this level of play, particularly when he doesn’t have a size advantage, but if he can it will be a major boost for the team.
- The Rockets recovered from a slow start using a line-up of Beverley/Lin/Harden/Casspi/Motiejunas. While this group is unlikely to see heavy minutes together when everyone is healthy, it’s an intriguing one because everyone is capable of stepping out to hit the outside shot and on tonight’s evidence I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of it. The great spacing it provides leaves Motiejunas room to go to work inside, and really supercharges Harden’s drive-and-kick game.
- One thing I’ve noticed is that Lin seems more confident taking pull-up jumpers than he used to be. In the past he would look to pivot in the paint if his driving lane was cut off, often losing the benefit of the havoc created by the initial penetration. Recently though he seems to be making an earlier decision to shoot in those situations, and it’s paying off. There have been a couple of tough shots he has made in recent games (in particular that one in the overtime against Portland), and he had a few more tonight. There are several potential playoff opponents with good shot-blockers (the Thunder and the Clippers spring to mind) that this will come in very handy for.