I observed in the preview earlier this morning that a lot of things would have to go right for the Rockets preview. However, that was written on the assumption that James Harden would suit up tonight, and when it was announced only a few hours before the game that he would be replaced by James Anderson in the starting lineup due to a reaggravated foot injury, I expected a complete, total blowout. Even when Houston took the early lead, I could not help but wait for the other shoe to drop, for the Clippers to finally wake up and pound a weaker team missing its superstar shooting guard into dust. After the first quarter, when the Clippers had a one point lead thanks to 7 early Houston turnovers, I expected them to continue along that road towards victory.
Instead, aside from a brief scare early in the fourth quarter, this was a dominating Rockets team performance. No Rocket had a performance which was jaw-dropping or utterly unexpected, as even Francisco Garcia’s 15 points was something most fans knew he could do. Instead, they all hustled, played defense, and fought a far better team that wilted under the relentless pressure which the Rockets gave.
If anything truly changed the nature of this team, it was Coach McHale’s decision to replace Donatas Motiejunas with Greg Smith in the starting lineup due to the Lithuanian’s continual battle to not end up on the battle anyways with foul trouble. While Smith has also had his share of struggles with fouls, tonight he managed to avoid it, as he and Asik combined to create a Twin Towers effect in the paint and completely shut down the Clippers there. While the Clippers managed to score 29 points in the first quarter, it was thanks to 5-6 shooting from long range and Blake Griffin continually drilling the 15-footer. However, the same duo had their troubles on offense. The Rockets used Asik in the post far more than normal this season with the expected results from the offensively challenged center, and the lack of Harden caused Lin to repeatedly lose the ball during that first quarter without someone completely reliable for him to pass it to.
However, the Houston bench came in and helped to calm the Rockets down. The turnovers decreased, the Clippers stopped shooting as well as Houston did a much better job with their closeouts, and they began to show signs of mental fatigue as they watched Houston take and hold on to the lead. Blake Griffin and Jamaal Crawford were called for technical fouls after arguing with the refs, the Clippers had trouble getting any foul calls of their own, and the half ended with a peculiar decision by Vinny Del Negro to try Hack-a-Smith at the end, which failed as Smith hit both of his free throws and Caron Butler answered by airballing a three pointer. Houston entered the locker rooms with a 55-50 lead.
It was during the third quarter that things kicked into overdrive, particularly at the defensive end. Chris Paul ended up in foul trouble as he picked up four during the quarter, and while Lin’s jumper was not as effective as it was earlier in the game, he also played smarter and stopped his habit of jumping into the air and firing a pass at a teammate’s general direction. Meanwhile, Asik prevented Griffin from accomplishing anything in the paint while Smith and Parsons grabbed the boards. For once during the season, Houston played extremely solid offense and defense, with strong rotations and ball handling. The result was that Houston had the game virtually won by the end of the third quarter, and while there was a brief moment of concern when the Clippers used zone defense to start the 4th quarter off with an early 8-0 run, Houston recovered and German Tim Olbrecht played in his second NBA game at the 3 minute mark.
Houston finishes Hell Week with a 2-2 record and I think for the first time, this team can really, truly begin to discuss the playoffs. There are nine games left, six of them are against sub-.500 teams, and Houston’s magic number is currently at six and possibly five depending on the outcome of tonight’s games for Utah and the Lakers.
- While Greg Smith starting over Motiejunas was one surprise from the frontcourt rotation, another was the complete absence of Thomas Robinson in tonight’s game, as last year’s 5th pick only played during garbage time. Asik-Smith-Motiejunas formed the big man rotation, while Parsons/Delfino got spot up minutes at smallball. The formation proved to be singularly effective against the Clippers, as backup power forward Lamar Odom is not a serious banger and Houston would want backup center Ryan Hollins to take as many shots as he can. Whether this will remain a long-term trend will be something to keep note in regards to Robinson’s future as a Houston Rocket.
- I will have a special spot in my heart for Kyle Lowry, and I in fact selected the Raptors as one of my League Pass teams explicitly to watch him play, even if he just hasn’t been the same this season. But even Kyle, as much as he hustled and fought, seems to pale compared to the effort which Patrick Beverley shows every single night, especially on the boards. Even at the very end of the third quarter with a 79-63 Houston lead, Beverley jumped in past several Clippers to grab the board which turned into a Chandler Parsons 3. I remember being skeptical of Beverley, citing the traditional hustle which all young players display as they desperately seek playing time only for it to wear off as the season progresses. I am very glad I was wrong.
- A special shoutout to the fan in the Toyota Center who kept waving a cardboard cutout of Chandler Parsons with James Harden’s beard, prompting a discussion by the Houston announcers about how long it would take for him to grow such a thing.