The gist: Both teams are coming off low-scoring two-point overtime wins. The Spurs lucked out after J.J. Redick heaved the ball after the buzzer while the Rockets relied on Samuel Dalembert’s putback dunk to seal the outcome against the Hornets.
Key matchup: Chandler Parsons vs Richard Jefferson
Jefferson has strung together four consecutive stinkers before redeeming himself against the Magic. Parsons’ string of highlight reels came to an abrupt end after a lone trey made his night. They would like nothing more than to use this game as a stepping stone to build momentum from.
X-factor: Kevin Martin
Martin has made his last 22 free throws dating back to the overtime win against Portland. He needs to stay aggressive and keep younger legs in Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Gary Neal constantly on their feet.
Code Red: Leonard will be a marked man. His minutes have increased since January 8, and over that span of seven games, he has garnered an average of 11.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.6 steals with those large mitts of his.
Every Friday, I’ll post this collection of thoughts accumulated over the past week, so named because it gives a perfectly arbitrary number limit to the amount of this rambling madness. Come get some.
After a month of pissing and moaning from the base about how the Houston Rockets just can’t bang with the big boys of the NBA, Houston got its chance to do what all good teams should: sweep up the riffraff. As anyone who paid attention this week saw, the team did just that, collecting five wins in a row to completely leave all passers-by clueless as to exactly how worthwhile this Rockets team actually is— a problem these Rockets have had for quite some time. Rarely has the dichotomy been so obvious, though: against +.500 teams, Houston’s been a dismal 3-7, accumulating all of those wins versus good teams at home, but when facing the league’s bottom-feeders, the Rockets have gone an unblemished 5-0. Playing elite teams on the road (and the Rockets have been up against some truly premier talent, including back-to-backs with the Thunder and both Los Angeles teams) has represented this buzzsaw that seems to cut the Rockets off at the knees anytime that they appear to be overreaching from their station in the NBA, that of the perennial eight-seed contender. Still, strangely enough, if the Rockets kept their current pace up, beating every team they’re supposed to beat and going .500 at home against the league’s better squads, while losing everything else, they’d the season at a beyond respectable 37-29 record, one which would almost certainly line them up for the playoffs— and a lot of road games against playoff-quality teams. Ouch. This seems like a silly exercise given the rashness of playoff talk less than a month into this season, but almost a fourth of all games have been played, which, for the Rockets at least, has brought forth some interesting patterns.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Dooley via Flickr
Like Houston’s bizarre record against the good and bad, the San Antonio Spurs have spent this season’s first month establishing a hard rule to follow all year: win em in all in San Antonio, lose everywhere else. I thought home court wasn’t supposed to mean much in the NBA? This is supposed to be the sport in which the cold-blooded killers, or stars, would rather hear the silence of thousands of adoring fans than the cheers of their own (or maybe that’s just the always sociopathic Kobe Bryant). No other obvious trends stand out: of the Spurs’ six road games so far this season, only three came on the second night of a back-to-back, one being the Spurs’ last game and first road victory against the Orlando Magic in overtime. Some of the team’s home wins have been on the bad end of back-to-backs as well, and seven of the team’s nine opponents in these home stands have been teams above .500. Though this trend has a high likelihood of lasting the weekend (the Spurs play Sacramento tonight in the AT&T Center, but travel to Houston tomorrow night to face the streaking Rockets), only the tiny sample size and some weird breaks can explain this one. Veteran teams, even ones that rely on notoriously home-court friendly shooters like the Spurs do, shouldn’t be expected to be so definitely shaped by the courts on which they’re playing, and I rather suspect the Spurs are just a very good team that have had some weird hiccups out of town.
National television has not been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers in this lockout-shortened season, as “statement game” losses to the Bulls, Blazers and Clippers have left a nation of pundits to ponder the health of Kobe, the competency of Mike Brown and the overall existence of a Lakers bench; Thursday’s exploding failure of a loss to Miami looks no different, immediately prompting the Laker-obsessed media to wonder, “When is Dwight Howard coming already?” There’s oh-so-much wrong with that sentiment, but I’ll just point out the two obvious problems: one, that Dwight Howard can really go just about anywhere he wants, and two, that big kid the Lake Show has manning the post right now isn’t so shabby. The first point is obvious, as Chicago, Atlanta, soon-to-be Brooklyn, the other Los Angeles and just about any team with a general manager that’s watched a game of basketball in the last ten years wants Dwight so badly that he can taste the Executive of the Year award (Mmmm… bronzey). As for Bynum, his efficiency numbers take a little damage from his uptick in usage rate this year (while still not nearly as high as Howard’s), but his stats compare favorably: both have a ridiculously low defensive rating of 93, top the rankings in total rebound rate (with Bynum slightly trailing Howard’s league-topping, eye-popping 24.1 percentage of total available rebounds snagged) and rank among the centers with the highest PERs (my biggest stretching of the truth, in which Howard ranks seventh in the entire league whereas Bynum is only the third-best center with a usage rate over 20). All of this nonsense should be redirected at that aforementioned problem with the purple & gold: the complete and utter lack of depth. Early in Thursday night’s drubbing at the hands of the Heat, Bynum had to miss time thanks to foul trouble, and in those moments, there were no viable options for the Lakers on offense. The Heat loaded up on Pau Gasol while only allowing Bryant contested mid-range jumpers, and the rest was just a reason to click over to the more exciting, if perhaps more depressing, Rockets/Hornets ending (or the entirely more depressing GOP debate). Superstars make champions, sure, but good teams can’t exist completely independent of worthwhile contributors who won’t show up on All-Star teams.
Photo courtesy of "an untrained eye" via Flickr
So many Rockets observers warned about the possible dangers of Luis Scola’s contract last offseason, even if they did so feebly, because the end of this deal would come when the highly “experienced” (read: old) Scola would be 35 years old. Most wondered what a tired-looking, even-less-athletic Scola would look like at the end of that run; like some damned Dickensian peer through the looking glass, we’re seeing exactly how ineffectual Scola can be this year. Precipitous drops in just about every meaningful statistical category have come along with Scola’s flaccid start to 2012, including in rebound rate (14.2 in 2010-11 to 10.3), true shooting percentage (53% to 48%) and win shares per 48 minutes (.110 to .016!); nothing quite encapsulates the failures like John Hollinger’s catch-all stat of Player Efficiency Rating, though, which has fallen from a near All-Star-level 18.4 from last year to a significantly below-average 12.7 in this young season. I’m hopeful we’re all just getting a brief, terrifying look into Scola’s future, but if the inevitable fall has already begun, who knows where in the hell he could end up at the end of this contract?
I promise I don’t hate the Utah Jazz. Promise. I did cry when John Stockton (and a dirty pick by Karl Malone) ended the Houston Rockets’ last meaningful title run in 1998. I certainly fumed and said several words that almost certainly wouldn’t be found acceptable within the Provo city limits when the Rockets fell in seven (in Houston. This is where I smack my forehead because the tear ducts don’t work anymore) to Utah. No, I don’t hate the Utah Jazz, but I certainly don’t think they’re among the best teams in the West, an echelon in wich an early-season burst has seem to have placed them, despite their paucity of believable NBA guards and anything that would differentiate them from other NBA teams. A middling +1.9 point differential tells part of the story, but Zach Lowe probably put it best earlier this week when he said that he’d be “pleasantly surprised” to see the Jazz come postseason time. NBA pundits, pay attention: records mean something, but Jesus, they don’t mean everything. Watching last night’s game, would anyone reasonably argue that the Jazz are a better team than the Mavericks? Now that that’s settled, would anyone argue the Mavericks are better than about six teams ahead of them in the West? Exactly.
Catch me on Twitter @JacobMustafa and in this weekly notebook every Friday. Thanks for spending your time here, and pay your respects to Etta James, a beautiful talent lost today. Rest in peace.
When the Houston Rockets signed Samuel Dalembert, seemingly minutes prior to tip-off of the opener against the Orlando Magic, I proclaimed that they would make the playoffs. (Whether or not that’s a goal they should pursue is a different matter I won’t discuss here), but after a shaky start, I still stand firm by my prediction. (It helps that they’ve recovered to go 1 game above .500.)
The reason I felt so confident about this team’s chances was that Dalembert filled its most glaring weakness from the season before. The Rockets were near tops in the league in offensive efficiency but their defense left much to be desired, to say the least. They had some solid individual defenders in the likes of Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee, and Chuck Hayes, but they just didn’t have the ‘length’ that allows a defensive scheme to come together, enabling guys to work as a unit and cover spaces instead of individual men.
Last night, against the Hornets, Samuel Dalembert won the game with his play in the final minute. Watch below as he leaves his man to cover Jarret Jack:
But look more closely.
What made Chuck Hayes so unique was his quickness – he was/is perhaps the most nimble big man in basketball, always moving his feet to beat opponents to their desired spot on the court. Chuck Hayes’ MO was to contest through anticipation, before the shot, on the ground. But what happened if he didn’t get there in time? What happened if there was a break-down, resulting in a second opportunity or a broken play without time to set up? The other team usually scored. Last year, the Rockets didn’t have anyone who could account for mistakes. This year they do. Look at the still above: Jarrett Jack has gotten past his man into an open space with Luis Scola and Samuel Dalembert not yet having rotated.
Last year, Jack gets the shot off. This year, it doesn’t matter that Dalembert was slow to rotate – he recovers through his length, stretching his arm to block the shot and save the game.
You could argue that Hayes would have been quicker to rotate, beating Jack to the spot. I’d counter that A) a blocked shot beats a contested hand-in-the-face challenge and B) at a macro level, if your big man has to stay closer to home on a shooting power forward, the shot blocking athlete has a greater chance to recover and disrupt than the fleet-footed Chuckwagon that has to trek perfectly to the exact spot. Point being: when you’re 7 feet, there’s much more room for error for both you and your team. When you’re Hayes, you have to be perfect, to contest or set up for the charge.
It’s not just defense though where the 7-footer earns his shekels. Above, Dalembert scored the winning basket by just being long.
Were he younger, we’d have thrown a parade over having found the long-term solution at center. A pity. But for this season, I think Dalembert will be the difference.
Samuel Dalembert, C43 MIN | 7-14 FG | 1-1 FT | 17 REB | 2 AST | 15 PTS | +7I cannot for the life of me understand how a game that was almost completely dominated by Houston came down to two overtime putbacks by Samuel Dalembert, but it did. And my, were those offensive rebounds glorious. Against a tiny frontline (or at least one that plays tiny) like the Hornets’, the Bear saw an opportunity to eat up boards, doing so with a game-high nine offensive boards, including those two that gave Houston the game. I’d give him the game ball if I didn’t already think he had it comfortably nestled in his hands.
Kevin Martin, SG43 MIN | 12-27 FG | 3-3 FT | 8 REB | 0 AST | 32 PTS | +9Whoa. Where’s this Kevin Martin been all year, and can he retroactively play in all of those early losses? Martin scored from anywhere he wanted Thursday night, most importantly from behind the arc, where his 5-9 mark posted as his second best three-point shooting night of the year. He also saved the game with his off-balance fadeaway in the last two minutes of regulation, which would have made him the game’s savior until the rampaging Dalem-Bear “took over” in OT.
Kyle Lowry, PG42 MIN | 4-11 FG | 1-1 FT | 9 REB | 8 AST | 10 PTS | +4As with most games this year, his stat lines will look pretty admirable at the end of this one, but Lowry’s hesitance in the clutch, along with Luis Scola’s, made a Houston offense that was chugging along for the first 3/4 of this game come to a miserable halt.
Courtney Lee, SG26 MIN | 7-12 FG | 1-2 FT | 2 REB | 2 AST | 17 PTS | -5Despite his semi-disappearance along with the rest of the team’s offense in the fourth quarter, Lee represented a burst of hope back onto Houston’s bench, someone who could score both in transition and off the pass, draining seven of his first 10 attempts. His string of three steals on consecutive Hornets possessions in the third quarter also emphasized his importance to this team.
Patrick Patterson, PF17 MIN | 0-4 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 1 AST | 0 PTS | -6Despite blocking a couple of shots in the third, Patterson really showed exactly how out of place he’s seemed all year in Kevin McHale’s offense, and his size issues on defense have basically placed him out of the rotation. If he expects minutes similar to last year’s, he’ll need to find a way to get points on his own in the simplistic system McHale has in place.
Five Things We Saw
What a horrific trainwreck the end of that game was. The Horents played like the New Orleans Hornets, while the Rockets caved into to every bad tendency and vacillation that’s made them look timid against this league’s more dynamic outfits. Only through a small miracle (Jason Smith’s missed jumper at the end of regulation), typically awful Hornets offense and some gigantic Sam Dalembert plays (yup, still feels weird to write that) did the Rockets escape this one with their shirts intact. I’d breathe a sigh of relief if I didn’t feel a foreboding sense of doom clouding over Houston called the San Antonio Spurs.
Also a week ago, I complained liberally about Martin’s inability to put together the kind of scoring efficiency that he had in past years, that is, a ton of threes and free throw attempts even without brilliant numbers from the field. Over the last five games, there’s been an uptick in Martin’s attempts from the line of over two a game (up to almost six a game), and the Rockets have, not so surprisingly, won a lot more. In Thursday night’s victory over New Orleans, his three-point shooting returned, if only for one brilliant half. Any true renaissance for these Rockets will involve a return to form for Martin.
In the Morey Era, it’s seemed that every year has brought with it some surprise rookie over which the general Rockets populace could drool at the endless potential (Carl Landry, Chase Budinger, Patrick Patterson, even Ish Smith), and this year’s no different as Chandler Parsons has taken all bystanders by storm. Strangely, though, there does seem to be one real change from past years: Parsons’ numbers really aren’t all that great. Instead, it’s been the giant wing’s instincts that have gained him the fawning of Rockets fans, a shift in attention that can be applauded. The highlight dunks have been genuinely riveting, but his ability to swing the ball to the right spot and overall activity in the transition offense, as well as his exceptionally long limbs that can one day be turned into dangerous defensive weapons, all mark Parsons as more than a passing fancy for Houston followers.
Courtney Lee’s jumper. Oh yes. That’s all there really is to say about tonight’s comeback by Lee. Yeah, he played some minutes the other day, but tonight, Lee swallowed the court, being just about everywhere that the Rockets made a good play, at least until the ultimate collapse that was the Rockets’ fourth quarter. Otherwise, more please.
So, that Chris Kaman fella really doesn’t seem like he should be playing NBA basketball for a living. Maybe as a hobby on one of those NBA2K video games that seem to receive so much acclaim, but certainly not as an occupation. Just a few years ago, Kaman operated as one of the NBA’s most dangerous post presences, a guy who had manifold ways of scoring on this league’s weaker post defenders. Maybe it’s the years of injuries or the disheartening deal that sent Kaman to yet another miserable rebuilding organization; whatever it might be, Kaman doesn’t have the heart for this game anymore, or any of the other requisite body parts apparently.