My latest at ESPN hit the press yesterday:
One of the more entertaining spectacles from each Rockets game involves Jones corralling the rebound and leading the break on his own. In these moments, Houston’s guards stroll the other way, confident Jones will finish the play. And with a surprisingly accurate shooting stroke, Jones can spread the floor and give Houston’s stars the space they need to operate inside. He is always moving, either in transition or in the half court, finishing the passes off cuts to the rim that Asik couldn’t handle.
Jones’ numbers have come down to earth a bit, in recent games, as was to be expected. But make no mistake, his replacement of Omer Asik in the starting lineup has been the catalyst to the Rockets’ offensive surge.
Right now, I think the 21-year-old still has a very long way to go. In fact, it scares me heading into the postseason with Jones as our second best big man. I don’t know if he’s shown anything to prove that he can rotate consistently and defend the paint. And even in the new era, you can’t expect to win in the second season without strong interior defense.
Still, the emergence of Jones has had its effects. Had he not shown he could fill the role for the time being, Daryl Morey might have been more desperate to get a deal done, opting to include a draft pick to acquire the ‘4’ of his choice. Instead, Morey stood firm by his stance and some of that has to be attributed to Jones – the sophomore’s play has allowed him to buy some more time.
The Rockets are only four and five in the month of December. After getting physically dominated by the Pacers on Friday, it will be important for the Rockets to bounce back against a surprisingly strong Pistons team. The Rockets are struggling to maintain any kind of intensity game in and game out. Van Gundy said it best about our team leader: James Harden is not an elite player until he can bring the intensity every game. The same can be said for the Rockets as a whole. They didn’t look close to being an elite team against the Pacers on Friday and all of their weaknesses were exposed. The Rockets could not get a stop in the third quarter to save their lives and the Pacers were not missing from the outside. Our three point shooting went cold and the Pacers were back on defense to stop any kind of a fast break. As Rob Dover said, “So that’s what defense looks like.” What an embarrassment and tremendous confidence killer this game was.
The Rockets definitely are working from behind the eight ball when it comes to injuries. Asik has been out and his defense, rebounding and resolve in the middle have been sorely missed. If Asik can come back and commit to being the best player possible, the Rockets may be able to stabilize the ship. Now that the trade chatter is over, maybe Asik can get healthy, and focus on earning his paycheck. The only way Asik gets out of town is to show that he is still an elite center. That’s the only way the Rockets can get back value for what the Rockets perceive as Asik’s true worth.
Ever since they smothered the Rockets in their sole visit to Houston last year, the Pacers have been one of my favourite teams to watch. I’m fascinated by how they are able to force teams to take shots they don’t want to take and strangle the opposition’s offence, and I was eager to see whether this year’s iteration of the Rockets would fare any better. On the basis of tonight’s showing the answer is an emphatic “NO!”. In the second half the Pacers dominated the Rockets in pretty much every facet of the game, stretching the lead out and cruising to a comprehensive victory.
- There were three key areas the Pacers excelled in defensively tonight that allowed them to run away with the game:
- Their discipline in defensive transition was incredible. No matter what they tried, the Rockets just could not generate any opportunities when they pushed the ball. It almost seemed as though the Pacers defenders were teleported back to their paint after the shot went up.
- You do not get open three point shots against the Pacers. Ever. Against any other team a kickout to the corner would generate an open look, but Indiana’s weakside helpers are so quick to recover to their man that the shot just isn’t there. This was not just a bad shooting night – there’s a reason the Rockets were 4-21 from behind the arc.
- Any over-dribbling is punished by quick hands knocking the ball away. This was particularly a problem for Harden, who likes his intricate dribbles – Paul George was constantly bothering his handle and knocking the ball away. It kills the possibility of any penetration and often leaves someone with a tough look as the clock expires.
- Howard vs. Hibbert was always going to be fun to watch. In the pre-season games between these two teams, frankly Howard was awful if he allowed Hibbert time to get set before making his move. So it was great to see just how effective Howard was in the post tonight – really he was the lone bright spot in an otherwise miserable performance by the team. He was making smooth moves with just enough unpredictability about them to avoid wandering hands of defenders coming down to double team. The result was a stream of high-quality looks, most of which he was able to convert on his way to a 19 point (9-16 shooting), 12 rebound, 5 block line. You can tell the time that he is spending with the big name big man coaches associated with the team is paying off.
- Last year Harden struggled big time against the long arms and keen defensive presence of Paul George. Given George’s evolution as an offensive threat over the past year, I was worried that we might see Harden embarrassed on both ends of the floor tonight. To give him credit, I thought he looked much sharper than usual defensively, but offensively he was almost completely shut down (12 points on 3-14 FGs). Apart from some occasional success with the pump fake, Harden doesn’t seem to have any way of getting past George and into the paint. This is where the Rockets really miss Lin – they need another way of getting dribble penetration on nights like this when Harden is ineffective. Without that, the half-court offence bogged down and the team could not find ways to score.
- The Pacers felt they had a mismatch in the post with West matching up against Jones and went to it often. They were right, too – he was able to consistently get good position and Jones found it very difficult to stop him. Admittedly, West is a difficult cover, but it is problematic if Jones is unable to handle opponents down low. In theory he is the bigger 4 in the rotation and as such he is who McHale wants to turn to if the opposing PF is being aggressive in the post. If he can’t be the guy who stops that, then he’s not going to be able to get as many minutes as you’d like.
- Perhaps because of the above, McHale played Smith at the 4 alongside Howard for stretches tonight. Playing the two of them together coincided with the Rockets going on a run and it actually looked pretty good defensively. They were able to shut down the paint and stay at home on opposing shooters since the Pacers were not playing a stretch 4. I remain unconvinced that it’s something McHale should be going to too often though because it feels like there would have to be spacing issues offensively, but perhaps this can be a situationally effective tool against bigger teams.
- While the defense looked solid with Smith at PF, it didn’t look great with him at the C. Casspi was giving up size to Scola, and unlike when Howard is on the floor there isn’t really the inside presence to help out. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a defensively-talented 7-footer we could put on the floor when Howard sits? Oh wait. If Morey isn’t going to trade Asik, they need to get him back on the court as soon as they can.
- Speaking of Scola, he had a bit of a throwback game tonight. He even hit a three early in the second quarter! I guess he’s been expanding his range. Always nice to see him doing well.
- On the evidence of tonight, the Pacers may be the worst match-up possible for this Rockets team. Their defensive strengths are almost tailor-made to cancel out the areas the Rockets rely on to score points. It’s not something you have to say very often, but for once I’m actually glad the Rockets are in the Western Conference so they only have to face these guys twice per year.