The very nature of preseason games, where the individual performances by those fighting for minutes or merely a spot on the bench is more important than the outcome, means that I won’t spend too much time talking about the flow of the game. Houston showed its potential championship capabilities from the very beginning, as the Lin-Harden-Parsons-Howard group (Donatas Motiejunas started at the power forward spot, but more on him below) quickly established a double-digit lead. Combined with help from Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley, Houston toyed with New Orleans for most of the game. Eventually, McHale sent out a lineup of Isaiah Canaan, Ronnie Brewer, Omri Casspi, Robert Covington, and Motiejunas for the final 9 minutes of play, and New Orleans took advantage of the garbage-time group to rally at the very end and win the meaningless game.
- Player of the game: Dwight Howard. 19 points and 9 rebounds in 27 minutes. I know it sounds inherently obvious, but it’s clear how much Houston this year is going to depend on him. Asik is a great defender, but Harden, Lin, and everyone else on the wings were all more aggressive fighting screens and playing tightly, clearly confident that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year would be there to cover their back. And Asik of course could never intimidate on offense as much as Howard did in this game, where the Rockets made it their objective to feed it to him in the post, and New Orleans visibly fought to prevent it, whether through fronting (remember how effective that was at stopping Yao Ming? Not so much here), double-teaming (which Howard passed out to open shooters without problems), or letting Greg Stiemsma or Jason Smith play Howard one on one (this did not work very well).
- Worst player of the game: Donatas Motiejunas. Aaron Brooks was a strong contender for this “award” despite only playing 8 minutes, as he managed 4 turnovers, two of them due to stepping out of bounds, failed to make a shot, and failed to play within the team so badly that I nearly found myself wishing for Jonny Flynn back. But Brooks is never going to be a 25 mpg player on this team. Motiejunas could be, which made his performance the more aggravating. He showed brilliant post moves and footwork, only to miss the shot itself, was in foul trouble (3 in the 1st quarter, and fouled out after 25 minutes of play), and struggled both to contain New Orleans’s big men and defend the basket itself. The only real positive is that he did make all 4 of his free throws, an important first step in improving his shooting if he is to be the stretch 4 to Howard that many envision.
- Best moment of the game: Patrick Beverley destroying Jrue Holliday. Holliday may have been an All-Star last year, but his handles have never been a particularly strong point of his game. Beverley took advantage, stripping Holliday of the ball in a one-on-one situation not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times in five minutes. Perhaps he could have kept it up all night long, but Holliday used his 6th foul in frustration after the fourth incident, and McHale gave Beverley a well-deserved rest afterwards. Beverley had an absolutely terrific game on both ends of the court, scoring 12 points on 5 shots.
- In the discussion about who will be the last two players cut, Casspi has been a fairly obvious choice. Houston has plenty of wing depth, and unlike Brewer who is known for his defense or Williams who is known for shooting, Casspi’s most enduring legacy still remains being the first Israeli to be drafted in the first round. However, Casspi tonight made a huge statement on his chances of making the team. When McHale used the Canaan-Brewer-Casspi-Covington-Motiejunas lineup at the end which cost them the game, Casspi was the only one who played decently. In fact, he was superb, scoring 16 points in the final quarter and going 9-10 for 20 points. Some of the shots were definitely of the kind that Casspi won’t make on a regular basis, but he clearly hustled on both ends of the court as he ran down transition buckets and blocked players bigger than himself.
- I have personally never been much of a fan of trading Asik, and I think this game shows his importance. Houston lost this game because when Coach McHale let Howard rest for the 4th quarter, there was no one who could guard the rim or stop Anthony Davis. One may say that Houston has other centers beside Asik, but Greg Smith’s defense would embarrass Amare Stoudamire and Marcus Camby is too old to be reliably counted on, especially after only playing 24 games for the Knicks last year.
- Francisco Garcia, Omer Asik, Greg Smith, Marcus Camby, and Reggie Williams all sat out of tonight’s game due to lingering injuries.