image courtesy of Rockets.com, nba.com
After getting completely manhandled in a back to back against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Houston Rockets now sit at 29-17, fifth in the Western Conference. Entering the week, especially with Chris Paul’s injury, Houston seemed to have a real shot at overtaking the fourth-seeded Clippers and even applying pressure upon the skidding Blazers who seem destined to come back down to earth. But you didn’t really think the Rockets would seize the opportunity, did you? Come on man, this is the Houston Rockets we’re talking about. Jekyll and Hyde. They’ll trudge along amidst the middle seeds because they’re just not ready for prime time.
The Rockets will get a few days to lick their wounds before coming home to host the Spurs, the one truly elite team (I don’t really count the Blazers – they’re a paper tiger) who they’ve handled with relative ease. Kawhi Leonard is out, so expect James Harden to continue his dominance against these interstate rivals. (Isn’t it just weird how some guys just have some teams’ number?) I don’t expect Parker to be so thoroughly kept in check the way he was the last time these two teams got together. Could Houston beat San Antonio in a seven game series? They could, but I probably wouldn’t bet on it. I could honestly see the Rockets winning the first two games of the series before Poppovich made some adjustment that completely threw the good guys for a loop, causing the series to completely shift. But on paper, and on the scoreboard so far, this is the single best matchup for the Rockets out of any of the elite teams. Leonard, for some reason, can’t handle Harden, Howard is enough to neutralize Timmy, and Splitter is the one Western Conference power forward who cannot truly capitalize upon the Rockets’ inexperience at the power forward. In fact, if they played the Spurs on a national stage, I could see Terrence Jones have a coming out party the likes of Harrison Barnes’ last year.
Dwight Howard is a great center. Regardless of the fascination with newer, younger centers like DeMarcus Cousins and Roy Hibbert, Howard is still the best center in the league. But for all of his athleticism and defensive ability, Howard is only one man. While he may be better than either Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol, he is not as good as the two combined. And this does not even take into account that Memphis has other legitimate big men such as Kostos Koufos, Ed Davis, and James Johnson to play, while Houston only has Terrence Jones and the still inexperienced Donatas Motiejunas. Memphis’s big men, combined with their overall depth, overpowered the smaller Rockets and forced them to play the slow it down, defensive battle the Grizzlies prefer – and the result was a game which was all but over by the end of the third quarter.
In this episode, I examine last night’s complete collapse against the Memphis Grizzlies.
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Keys to the game include:
Getting to the line – We need more free throw attempts. The Rockets lead the league at 31 per game, but shot only 14 last night at home! t’s always harder to get calls on the road, but Harden is going to have to sacrifice his body tonight to get to the line. His aggression going to the hole is key. In tight games, I even like to see Howard go to the line. At least we’ll probably get one point. In crunch time the Rockets are still struggling to score, and free throws are our savior.
Foul trouble – Dwight is leading the league in fouls, at 156 this season, and with Smith and Asik on the bench (remind me why he’s not playing again?) it’s imperative to keep Howard on the floor for as long as possible. He only played 30 minutes last night. When Howard goes out of the game and D Mo or Jones are tasked with holding down the middle, you can just feel the Rockets get itchy. Sometimes they settle down and play great small ball, but lots of the time there is the feeling that the second team runs around like chickens with their heads cut off. I’m hoping Lin’s presence with the second team will start to help again.
The volatile nature of the Rockets’ offensive output has been on show a lot recently. When everything flows and the shots fall they’ve shown they can get past the 70 point mark by half time. Unfortunately tonight showed that it is very possible to see the other side of that coin, especially when faced by a determined and disciplined defence. The Grizzlies slowed the game down, clogged the lane, and generally made it as tough as possible for the Rockets to score. In the end the Rockets only just surpassed their first-half total from the Portland game in the full four quarters of play tonight. Despite Chandler Parsons unleashing a rain of three pointers, the two teams remained neck-and-neck all the way down the stretch and in crunch time the Grizzlies got the stops they needed to hold on to a slender one point margin of victory.
- Parsons went 0-3 from beyond the line in the first half and all of his shots looked miserable. He wasn’t jumping straight up and seemed to be putting even less arc on the ball than usual. I was all ready to write about how sometimes when his form collapses he has a tendency to go into slumps, but then in the second half something incredible happened. The shots still didn’t look great – flat, often taken from well behind the three point line and taken from strangely angled jumps. But somehow they all went in. In the end he was 10-11 on three pointers in the second half and finished with a game leading 34 points – a monumental number considering how low scoring the game was and the fact that no other player surpassed 20.
- There were a few downsides to Parsons’ play, unfortunately. One was that he was being forced to take these difficult long threes to bail out what was otherwise one of the worst offensive showings I’ve seen from the Rockets this year. Harden and Beverley were frustrated at every turn whenever they tried to drive. They would end up in a thicket of long limbs and stout bodies – there was always someone between them and the rim making the shot difficult or infeasible, and another defender hanging around in just the right spot to make the kick out awkward. Both had awful shooting nights as a result, going 2-11 and 1-11 respectively. This lack of production out of penetration bogged down the Rockets’ offence and made manufacturing good shots in the half-court a tedious and difficult process.
- There wasn’t an easy release valve in the post either. Howard had issues with foul trouble that limited his ability to be aggressive in the post. And when he did catch the ball on the block he was clearly bothered by Marc Gasol’s length. Hook shots that would normally be taken straight up had a bit of fade on them, and where he usually is very good at putting the ball up accurately here there were several wild misses caused by the unsighting effect of Gasol’s big body. He did much better when matched up against Randolph, but unfortunately the Rockets were unable to force the defensive switches to get Gasol away from Howard all that often.
- Memphis’ transition defence tonight was very good. It felt like every time the Rockets looked to push the ball the camera would swing round to point at the Grizzlies’ paint only to reveal at least three defenders already back in position to snuff out any thought of attacking the rim. They weren’t quite at Pacers-level of consistency, but they’re pretty close and that bodes ill for the turnaround game tomorrow night in Memphis.
- Have to talk about the final play of the game. The Rockets had the ball on the side-line with 9.3 seconds left on the clock and down by one. There was a conundrum – do you run a play for the ice-cold Harden or the red-hot Parsons, bearing in mind that Harden is a lot more comfortable in such situations but had been guarded really well all night by Courtney Lee? McHale went with Parsons, but the results were not good. The play was a Parsons-Howard pick and roll, but a good hedge/trap by Gasol broke it up. Parsons’ lack of comfort with the situation showed as he made the crucial mistake of picking up his dribble. I suspect someone more experienced would have kept the dribble alive and looked for a secondary option. Unfortunately, Harden (perhaps not used to being without the ball in such situations) cut in towards the free throw line instead of popping out to receive a reset, so there was nobody for Parsons to throw the ball to. He finally got it to Beverley who had no choice but to throw up a heavily contested prayer at the buzzer that was way off. It was disappointing to lose a game in that fashion after Parsons’ offensive outburst really should have been enough to put the Rockets over the top.