Tonight’s was a measuring stick game. While it is unlikely that the Rockets will face off against the Grizzlies in the playoffs (though still not beyond the realms of possibility, it would be helped by both teams winning tonight’s game, which of course cannot happen), due to their style of play a game against Memphis is probably the closest you’re going to get to the canonical ‘playoff style’ basketball during the regular season. They are aggressive on defense and have a tendency to construct slow, methodical possessions in the half court set at the other end. Much of the Rockets’ success come playoff time will hinge on their ability to break the shackles of the slow pace their opponents will play and inject some speed into the proceedings, so this made for a good trial run. Everything about the game, from the crowd to the refs to the intensity of the players themselves, made it feel like a playoff encounter, and while in the end the Rockets fell short it was nice taster of what’s to come.
The first quarter began with some ominously cold shooting from the Rockets. The Grizzlies were making it hard for them to get the easy shots to which they are accustomed, and when they did Harden and co. struggled to put them in the basket (Harden in particular blew several layups you would normally expect him to make). Memphis weren’t shooting well either, but they were getting on the offensive boards. Randolph was fighting for inside position very hard with Smith, and while for the most part Smith did a good job of keeping him quiet, he eventually did pick up two fouls in doing so and had to sit. It was a difficult task, but Smith really needed to keep himself on the court. As soon as he went to the bench, the Memphis bigs smelt blood and suddenly all of the possessions were going through Randolph and Gasol. Terrence Jones really couldn’t keep Randolph quiet – he was fortunate that there wasn’t long left in the quarter for him to be tormented.
The second quarter was more of the same offensively. Motiejunas came in and looked unconfident. His form was off and his shots weren’t falling. As well as Smith and Asik have played together in the past few games, it means you have to play D-Mo and Jones together for significant minutes, and when Motiejunas is in a funk it really doesn’t look good. D-Mo didn’t see any more time for the rest of the game, but time is running out to get him back in a groove for playoff time. Harden sat for a few minutes and without him offense was hard to come by. The one bright spot was that despite never quite looking right when given the ball on offense, Jones was doing a great job on the boards at both ends. His work prevented the gap from ballooning too far at the start of the quarter.
But there’s only so much you can do when you can’t make a shot. The starters came back and it didn’t get much better – over the course of the half the Rockets only made 11 field goals, for a shooting percentage of 29.7%. They made a couple of threes late on to cut the deficit to 13, but frankly that was flattering. Harden was missing layups he would normally make and committing some bad turnovers too – he reached the midpoint with 12 points on 3-11 shooting to go with 4 TOs. When he’s not playing well with the ball in his hands, it’s really tough to justify his poor defense at the other end. It also didn’t help that Asik was having a terrible half. He wasn’t dominating the boards like he normally does and had a bit of foul trouble, but the main issue was that he could not finish around the basket. It is vital the way that the Rockets’ offense is constructed that the team can rely on a big man to finish, and without that the two big lineups look awfully stagnant.
In the third quarter, we saw Harden starting to look for the outside shot a bit more. He was able to get to his spot on the left wing where he is so deadly and knock down a few three pointers, which seemed to stimulate the Rockets’ offense. Lin was also finding some joy by relentlessly driving into the paint. Grizzlies were fouling a lot and also went through a cold streak of their own, and in combination it allowed the team to cut the lead to 5. After playing so poorly in the first half, it was a great achievement to get back into the game.
The Rockets started the fourth on a roll. Terrence Jones continued to play well off the ball. He was cleaning up the boards with aplomb (including one very nice putback jam), and shook off some of his shooting reticence to knock down a three pointer. On the back of his hustle the team was able to bring it back to level at 64 all before we were treated to the rare sight of Harden getting genuinely angry. There had been a couple of calls that hadn’t gone his way, and eventually he was pushed over the edge and earned a technical, having to be held back by Lin and trainer Keith Jones. Interestingly, that anger drove him to actually play some good defense on a few straight possessions. With Harden, I really feel like the only thing stopping him from being at least an average defender is his mindset – when he’s motivated, he’s very capable. It didn’t take long though for that fire to subside and his old habits to take over again.
Perhaps that momentary defensive exertion took it out of him, because as the final quarter wore on Harden started to look tired. It was somewhat understandable because ended up playing the entirety of the second half, but you could see him slowing down possessions when the ball ended up in his hands. This coincided with the Grizzlies turning up their defense and the refs swallowing their whistles. The fast hands of Allen and Conley generated some fast break points and suddenly the lead had ballooned to 8 points. Fortunately, Jeremy Lin was able to step into the void – a couple of clutch threes and a pretty no-look feed to Asik and they were right back in the game as we entered crunch time.
With 33 seconds left in the game, the Rockets were down 80-78 with possession. Harden received the ball at the top of the arc, but the Grizzlies were able to shut off his driving options. Eventually he put up a three and missed. On the long rebound, the Grizzlies got a run out but some desperate defense by Lin and Jones forced Tony Allen into a tough reverse layup, which he missed. In the ensuing scramble for the rebound Allen was fouled, but proceeded to miss both free throws and suddenly Houston had a chance to take the final shot for a win or tie. Once again, Harden was iso’ed against Allen, and this time he pulled up from just inside the three point line. With tired legs beneath him, he missed the shot and with that the Grizzlies walked out of the building with the win.
- The Rockets really missed Parsons tonight. With Delfino only just back from a bad bout of flu and Garcia a non-factor, they were really lacking an additional option from the perimeter to space the floor and create secondary penetration off kick outs. Parsons’ skills would have added the third option the team desperately needed against the suffocating Grizzlies defense.
- One interesting wrinkle I noticed was that defensively McHale had Harden defending Prince and Garcia on Allen. This was the opposite to what I expected – I figured with Allen being the least threatening Memphis starter offensively it would make sense to hide Harden there. But if there’s one thing worse than Harden’s man defense, it’s his positioning when he’s the help defender. There were some possessions in the third quarter where Harden was defending Allen, and they did not end well. First Allen crossed Harden over and drove to the basket (where he had a BIG collision with Smith) and then he was able to lose Harden completely to get wide open under the basket. Harden’s defensive inattention is best hidden against players who are not a threat to drive, so I think the right call was made here.
- While I can understand why McHale left Harden in the game for the whole second half (the team looked totally unable to find a shot in the few minutes when he sat in the second quarter), he really does need to find a way to ration the Beard’s minutes a bit. If you’re going to rely on Harden isos to end the game, he needs to have enough gas left in the tank to generate good shots, and it didn’t feel like that was there tonight.
- Terrence Jones needs to learn how and when to pass. At the moment whenever he receives the ball it completely breaks the flow of the offense. He seems to have two modes: either he holds the ball for a split second longer than he needs to before passing back to a guard, or he goes into an expansive dribble move with multiple crossovers that goes nowhere, before eventually either forcing up an awkward shot or passing out again having wasted 10 seconds of the shot clock. One senses that he has yet to completely adjust to the shorter NBA shot-clock and the time pressures it exerts on an offense.
- Greg Smith did a good job when asked to guard Randolph, but for a couple of possessions in the second half he was asked to guard Marc Gasol and got schooled. On the first possession, Smith got into a low stance to prepare for a post up. Gasol took one look at him, stood up straight, and tossed in what amounted to an open 10 footer – Smith was so low that he had nothing in Gasol’s eyeline! On the next possession, Smith tried to body up Gasol, who responded with a quick move to the basket drawing the foul. Smith wasn’t left on Gasol again for the rest of the game. I think this short sequence illustrated one of the issues that’s going to arise when playing Smith at the 4 – while he does a great job against bangers, opposing players with a modicum of finesse can make him look a bit silly. He’s liable to encounter a few more of those when playing the power forward spot than he would have done at centre.
- Looking back, the growth we’ve seen over the course of the season from Jeremy Lin has been amazing. Back in pre-season and in the early games, he looked wild on the drives and couldn’t hit a shot from the outside to save his life. He has gradually tightened things up over the course of the season and now looks like a completely different player. He’s developed an excellent ability to change from a full-on drive to a dead stop in an instant that gets him a lot of short jumpers in the lane (which he has started making), and he no longer looks out of control if he does take it all the way to the hole. The outside shooting has come a long way too – without his late three pointers in tonights game the Rockets would have been nowhere near close enough to create the crunch-time situation, and generally it seems like a much safer option than it used to for him to play the role of set shooter from Harden’s drives.