Huq’s Pen: Preparations for Game 3

  • It is 9:10 PM right now at the time of writing.  When Red94 goes to press, it will likely be sometime early Friday morning.  I thought I would have cooled off from my rage from this morning (Thursday morning), but having read Michael Pina’s piece just now on Houston’s defensive coverage schemes on LaMarcus Aldridge, I’m seething.  Until then, I had not yet had time to examine the tape from last night.  More on this later.
  • When things are going bad, the coach is usually the inevitable scapegoat,  even when such blame is unwarranted.  I hate that.  But I should note, in my adult life following this team, I never once before McHale blamed the team’s failures upon its coach.  Rick Adelman and Jeff Van Gundy had their flaws, yes.  But never did I feel that either man was a large part of the reason why the team had lost or was losing.  In the case of Van Gundy, he drove me mad with his myopic outlook to team management – I still have not forgiven him for the night in Denver when he played David Wesley and Juwan Howard heavy minutes down the stretch of a meaningless win, leading to the forfeit of a draft slot which could have nabbed Brandon Roy.  But there was not a single night during his tenure here that I said to myself, “man, the Rockets just didn’t come ready to play today.”  In fact, that was the one thing you could point to with Van Gundy.  He always had his troops ready to play.  Against the Lakers in the first round, in ’04, I vividly remember feeling as if the team had six players on the court, during defensive stretches.  That’s how on-point the balded one had his gang with their rotations.  And this was with some of the dumbest players in the league like Steve Francis and the infamous Kelvin Cato playing huge minutes.

  • McHale’s Rockets have been losing in the same ways ever since his hiring.  The end of season collapse for the Rockets isn’t much of a coincidence now that it happens every year, dating back to the tail end of the Lowry era when the team went on a six game losing to close the season, getting blown out in the third quarter of each of those losses.  When you lose repeatedly in the same manner, it is on coaching.
  • If the Rockets lose this series, McHale is gone – that much is a foregone conclusion.  But beyond that, Daryl Morey will have to do some reassessment of certain things.  To date, Mr. Morey has been near flawless in his execution of talent acquisition.  As I’ve been saying all year, with that phase of the master-plan complete, the focus now should be solely upon basketball.  Its been one of the worst kept secrets in this city that McHale was brought in because he could be more easily steered from the front office than a more headstrong option.  Morey and co. could implement the analytical findings (3’s and paint) with little resistance, but further, McHale was less likely to throw a fit over forward-thinking personnel moves.  Recall the fit Rick Adelman threw upon Morey’s trading of two starters midseason and his well-documented clashes with Morey over overall philosophy….
  • But now, none of that matters.  The Rockets no longer need a bridgegap because they already are where they wanted to be.  They have their superstar core.  They won’t be trading starters or benching veterans for younger players.  There’s no need to fear a mutiny over personnel changes because there won’t be personnel changes.  The Rockets are set.  Any moves they make would be ones that a veteran coach would pull for (ie: trading for Carmelo etc.).  Now is the time for Houston to acquire a coach who they can allow to actually coach the team.  They only have a three year window remaining with this group and they cannot afford to f*** around any longer.
  • You think Phil Jackson’s having some regrets about jumping to that Knick gig so quickly?
  • Several of you asked me my preference for the next coach of this team.  To respond, I’m not sure.  The only thing I am sure about is that it has to be someone established and not another figurehead, for the reasons I explained above.  The Van Gundy brothers are publicly on great terms with Mr. Morey and of course, as several people have noted, its well-documented that Dwight and Stan have put their differences behind them.  I think Stan would jump at the job offer but I’m not so sure Jeff would be willing to leave the niche he’s carved out as the best color-man in basketball.  But how awesome would it be if you could somehow convince those guys to each take less so you could afford to sign both of them?  How awesome would those postgame pressers be?  It would never happen because it serves no practical purpose but still…
  • We’ll have plenty of time to mull over the coaching options once the summer begins, but there is a game tonight which needs to be played.  Despite the poor coaching, I just have a hard time seeing Houston losing the next two.  Unless they’ve given up.  And hell, there’s a very real chance they have given up.  But if they haven’t, just based on talent alone, there is just no mathematical way possible for this Blazers team to beat this Rockets team four times in a row.  You have to expect Harden to improve slightly and for Aldridge to regress slightly, and those two expected occurrences alone should be enough to tilt the balance.
  • Has Houston given up?  Again, its possible.  The only guys with pride on this team, really, who are also influential enough to assert any leadership are Patrick Beverley and Chandler Parsons.  If Harden had any pride, he’d give a damn on the defensive end, and while I think it might be unfair to say Howard doesn’t have pride, I also think he’s just overall far too unsure of himself and insecure to really impose his will.  In fact, after the whole Orlando fiasco where Howard essentially waived a collectively bargained contractual right and tied his financial future upon “wanting people to like [him]”, you have to think the only person in pro sports with less self confidence is Jeremy Lin.  And Lin’s the guy about whom every year ten newspaper articles come out reporting after the season that he cried himself to sleep every night during the year with worry over getting cut/losing his job.*
  • *This is where the Lin Internet Contingent corrects me that Lin actually did not literally ‘cry’ but rather, was merely in a state of great mental angst.
  • A digression: how awkward would it be for Stan Van Gundy to get hired here, even though he and Dwight made up?  It’d be kind of like rekindling ties with your dad after you left home seeking independence and ultimately got sick of living in a studio apartment eating ramen every night.
  • Back to the game: look, you can’t ask for intricate strategic adjustments.  Even if McHale were capable, implementation is just not possible this late in the game.  This is all you can hope for right now: first, pride, as I already explained.  You have to hope the team hasn’t given up.  Second, reversion (re: Aldridge), as I explained.  Third, some lineup changes.  I think there’s a good chance you could see Motiejunas and perhaps Daniels in the place of Garcia.  McHale has shown a willingness to make extreme lineup changes in these circumstances.  You could also see different versions of small-ball.  Fourth, you have to hope for “basic” adjustments.  Again, it’s too much to ask for anything intricate, but they can change their pick and roll coverage, as Pina outlined in his piece last night.  Having the ‘bigs’ stay at home on Aldridge is basic and implementable and could be more than enough to tilt the odds.
  • But all of those missed rotations and defensive miscues you kept seeing, over and over, on Wednesday night?  Forget about seeing that stuff fixed.  It’s just too late.  Those errors are just emblematic of a poorly coached, ill-prepared team and there’s nothing that can be done about any of that right now.  That is the stuff that becomes ingrained in practice and its become clear the Rockets haven’t been practicing any of it, to date.  Again, all you can hope for are some basic pick and roll coverage tweaks.
  • As Pina said, Terrence Jones shouldn’t see a single second on LaMarcus Aldridge tonight.  It’s not even worth wasting anyone’s time.  And when Jones has been on Lopez, he’s been unable to box Lopez out.  If I were McHale, I would just start Asik because, aside from a few highlight reel plays every game, as I had feared at the trade deadline, Terrence Jones just can’t play with the big boys.  He literally doesn’t even have a chance out there.  It’s not just Jones’ individual defense that’s killing the team right now, but moreso, his inability to rotate quickly as a help defender.  When Dwight/Asik are showing on the ball-handler, it’s Jones’ responsibility to rotate to the paint and he hasn’t been there nearly soon enough.
  • On that point, please play Motiejunas.  The lineup that included him, alongside Howard, was Houston’s stingiest defensively.
  • Last major point: As the Pina piece outlined in bits, and as you all saw the other night, Asik did about as good of a job as anyone could expect defensively on Aldridge.  He battled him for positioning before the play began, he moved his feet, and he contested on every attempt.  He just got smoked.  That’s what makes what Aldridge is doing so breathtaking.  He is hitting turnaround 19 footers with Asik draped in his face.
  • On Asik: it’s contrary to popular opinion, but Asik is the superior pick and roll defender over Howard, as some of the tape shows.  Howard, in general, is a bit slow to rotate back after showing on the guard.  It shouldn’t be hard to believe because Asik’s greatest quality upon his signing, from those in the know, was his ability to guard the guard in the pick and roll.  It’s just hard for people to believe because it’s the same guy who routinely trips over his own feet under the basket and has some of the worst hair in the league.
  • Last thought on adjustments: it is hilarious and also downright chilling that McHale’s idea of an adjustment from Game 1 to Game 2 was, rather than trying anything new, just hope that Asik didn’t get into foul trouble this time around.
  • Conclusion: this isn’t over.  Houston just has too much individual talent to get smoked four straight by this Blazers team.  With some very basic adjustments in coverage schemes and expected reversion to the mean (ie: Harden getting over his hangover), the Rockets can pull off this Game 3.  But it will be tough.  Have they given up?

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of

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