Oklahoma City doesn’t like Patrick Beverley. The players of the Thunder don’t have any say in this grudge, and it’s only going to be reignited when the Rockets visit Oklahoma to take on the Thunder for the first time this season. The knee injury that Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook suffered in the playoffs last season has attacked once again, removing him from active duty until further notice. With the specter of that fateful collision between two point guards looming large, Houston has to come into one of the loudest home courts in the league and try to steal one in the Chesapeake Energy Arena
Westbrook is unquestionably the second best player on the Thunder, a team tied for first place in the brutal Western Conference. His absence a huge factor in the Rockets’ resistance to a clearly superior Thunder team during the playoffs, and the same will be true in this meeting. This time, however, Houston is missing their own starting point guard in Patrick Beverley, who’s out with a broken hand. That grudge will have to wait, but the larger grudge will take center stage. The Thunder will come at a battered, weary Rockets team, and there will be no mercy. If Houston wants a win, they’ll need to summon every bit of resolve they have left.
In a long season, there will stretches where not every facet of the team is clicking. Whether it’s down to fatigue caused by a rough stretch of games, injuries warping the rotation or just players getting out of form, there will be nights where teams have to win with significant areas of the team not firing. Tonight was one of those games – an invisible bench (not for the first time in recent weeks) and an abysmal three point shooting performance were difficult hurdles for the team to overcome. But thanks to some of the areas that are going well at the moment (Dwight Howard, 4th quarter execution), the team was able to come out with the win.
- Monty Williams made an interesting adjustment to try to stop Howard’s recent post domination. Defensively, he matched Anthony Davis against Terrence Jones and Ryan Anderson against Dwight. Maybe it was to keep Davis out of foul trouble, or perhaps he felt that Anderson had a better chance of holding his own in the post. Either way, when combined with aggressive double-teaming it did serve to frustrate Howard’s post attempts initially. Howard seemed to have to speed up his moves to get them off before the second defender arrived, and it threw off his rhythm. But it’s clear he’s really thinking about how to get things back on track – it was noticeable that he started setting up higher up on the block than he normally does. While this did shorten the distance that the help defender had to come, it also gave him a lot more space to work in by letting him spin baseline away from the double team and it seemed to make a difference! He finished with 10-12 shooting, which is excellent, but 8 turnovers, which is less so. Those mostly came early on when he was struggling to handle the attentions of the second defender.
- The starting unit was able to build a lead at the end of the first quarter, but unfortunately the bench unit proved incapable of protecting it. Unfortunately, to my eye a lot of the blame fell on Motiejunas. It’s a shame, because after a promising showing against Memphis on Thursday it would have been great if he could have made good use of the minutes he had earned. But he just didn’t seem to be able to handle Jason Smith in the front-court. Between giving up too much space for Smith’s jumper, biting far too hard on pump fakes, fouling unnecessarily and being unable to provide the paint protection to stop a rampaging Tyreke Evans, it was not a good stint for D-Mo. What had at one point been an 11 point lead evaporated down to 2 in the space of two minutes. It was not pretty viewing. You want to keep giving him time to play through his mistakes, but it is going to be difficult unless he can develop the consistent defensive intensity and concentration he needs to play the anchor role. McHale clearly agrees, as D-Mo did not see the court again after his initial 4 minute stint.
- To be fair, giving up that lead wasn’t entirely on D-Mo’s defence. The rest of the backups also looked poor in what has been a worrying trend of late. Offensively they don’t seem to be a plan beyond hoisting a lot of threes, often semi-contested, and tonight next to none of them went in (6-26 overall for a putrid 23.1%). Here’s the play-by-play of the first 4 minutes of the second quarter:
- Brooks missed 3
- Casspi free throws (0/2)
- Casspi missed 3
- Harden missed 3
- Casspi made 3
- Brooks missed 3
- Garcia missed 3
- Oh dear. The three-ball may pay off in the long run, but when you have the lead it’s more important to have a consistent source of points than a high variance one. The team could do to tailor their strategy to the situation a bit better and try to take the ball inside more when they’re ahead.
- Terrence Jones always seems to have a good game when going up against his old Kentucky team-mate, and tonight was no exception as he reeled off an excellent 17 point, 8 rebound, 3 block night. Every time I watch him match up with Davis I feel like Jones has the edge, which is weird given how dominant Davis looks most of the time. I hypothesize that Davis’ offensive game still lacks the wrinkles of unpredictability and variety that more polished NBA big men have, and Jones’ familiarity with his game gives him a much better shot of neutralising it. Due to cross-matching the pair were kept from guarding each other too much in this game, but when they did Jones acquitted himself very well. He produced what may well have been the turning point of the game when he ripped down a rebound and went coast-to-coast, drawing the foul in the process to tie the game. Very impressive!
- Jeremy Lin once again turned up in the fourth quarter after a miserable start to the game. His 10 fourth quarter points were key to allowing the Rockets to finish the game strong and pull out the victory. They also meant that every Rockets starter finished in double figures. The team were able to make some baskets late on in the game, but it still didn’t feel like a smooth operation. They were helped massively by two costly Pelicans turnovers at key moments that allowed them extra possessions to put away the game. Against better teams, they will not get these second chances. It remains to be seen if they can put away games if opponents do not give them two more bites at the cherry than they would normally have.
The Rockets are coming off a nice victory against the Spurs and an ugly win against the Grizzlies. Which team will show up tonight against the Pelicans? While not quite a team of Jekyll and Hyde proportions, Houston has not been able to get on a big run of wins this year, and dominate in a way that would make fans believe tonight’s game will be a win. The Rockets are still having to gut out games against opponents like the Pelicans. Houston’s record in December is 7 and 6.
The strong consistent play of Howard, the emergence of Jones as an all-around player, the continued growth of an already impressive Parsons, the speed of Lin pushing the ball and Harden’s health improvement are all converging factors for a positive emergence of Houston’s future. Though currently the Rockets sit 5th in the West, they are at serious risk of another first round exit if the playoffs were held today.