After last night’s victory, Kevin McHale stated that he opted to keep Dwight Howard on the bench late in the game because his back had stiffened up. I had been tweeting during the game’s closing minutes that it was a great coaching move on the part of McHale to stick with Motiejunas down the stretch. It’s anyone’s guess whether McHale’s stated reason was true. However, considering that he kept Terrence Jones–who had been beasting up until the fourth quarter–on the bench as well, closing out with Casspi and Motiejunas inside, I suspect McHale’s statement regarding Dwight was given to avoid controversy and that his true intentions were to reward Motiejunas. If I’m right on that, I love it. Either way, I love what happened.
As we are all too familiar, Motiejunas is a player who desperately needed something to go right for him this year. After some nice flashes offensively last season, he’s been chained to the bench since after appearing at times like the worst interior defender in the entire league. A game like last night is exactly what D-Mo needed to prove to himself that he is capable of playing defense in this league. He battled Zach Randolph, one of the most physical power forwards in basketball, and survived. It wasn’t pretty, Z-Bo had his way on a few occasions, and D-Mo took some shots (including an elbow to the throat), but his limbs are still in tact and he’s still alive and standing. Experiences like that are what cause a player to reflect back and build confidence. Hopefully Motiejunas now understands the level of physicality he must bring to earn playing time. And now he knows he’s capable. Had McHale just pulled him after the Dwight danger had passed (Howard was on the bench due to foul trouble), there wouldn’t have been much to draw upon. But the former Celtic great left D-Mo in until the very end. It was a risky move that could have cost the team the game. But its the type of move that Gregg Poppovich would have made, sacrificing a bit in the present for the sake of the future. Maybe its a sign that McHale is settling in?
The question now pertains to Motiejunas’ future. Howard and Terrence Jones are entrenched as the starters, hell, maybe even for the next three years the way Jones is looking. And Greg Smith and Casspi remain ahead of Motiejunas in the rotation. But Casspi has slipped a bit of late and Smith does not provide the versatility on offense that Motiejunas, in theory, would. There also is Asik who is possibly the best backup big man in the entire league.
Unless he completely bombs, Casspi isn’t coming out of the rotation. He provides far too much floor spacing with his ability to put the ball on the floor. But Smith and Asik, for the time being, are injured. When Asik eventually returns, I could potentially see McHale not playing him simply out of disgust. But Smith is a far more proven contributor than Motiejunas; this short period while Smith is out might be Motiejunas’ last chance. Despite the blue skies sunshine from the first two paragraphs of this post, a big part of me wants to say that last night was probably D-Mo’s last significant moment in Houston and that Smith/Asik will return soon and reclaim their spots. But you never know. It always starts small, like Terrence Jones’ inspired play in the second half against the Raptors, the game which eventually thrust him into the starting lineup. D-Mo is going to get another shot, for at least five minutes, on Saturday night against the Pelicans. He needs to bring that same intensity and physicality from last night.
If Motiejunas plays well on defense, he’s going to have an edge over the other players just simply because he’s so gifted on offense. It’s an interesting situation. Dwight Howard is the best big man in the league and Omer Asik is a top-5 defensive center. Jones looks as good as any high-lottery stud. And even Greg Smith is no slouch – a young big with great hands and body control. The Rockets have an embarrassment of riches inside, talent-wise; there are no stiffs on this roster. If they can all show value, not only will it obviously help the team on the floor, but it will provide flexibility in trades to fill other needs. The challenge of course is getting each player enough time to drive up that value. For Motiejunas, that last opportunity is right now, due to the injuries.
I really want Motiejunas to succeed. For as horrendous as he’s been defensively, there’s no doubt he’s tantalizing on offense. While he’s struggled to put it together, he has post moves and a smooth touch. Being able to bring him off the bench to spread the floor would be a great boon when the team wants a different look. But can he survive defensively? As I’ve said for some time, a ‘title contender’ just simply cannot afford weak interior defense. I’m pessimistic about Motiejunas’ chances at cracking the rotation, but I’m hoping more than anyone else that it works out for him.