In Friday’s victory over Philadelphia, Coach Kevin McHale compared the game to winning a poker hand with a 3 and a 4. If you want to continue that analogy, tonight was like winning a poker hand with a 2 and a 7 – the worst possible hand in Texas Hold ‘Em.

That’s not to say that these two games were completely the same. While the Philadelphia game was just frustrating, this was an abomination to the Rockets, the Thunder, and every unfortunate soul who was unable to change the channel. For 48 minutes, the fans got to watch brick after brick after blocked shot after testy confrontation which the referees did not do very much to quell. At the end of the night, a Houston team which shot less than 29% for the game and 53% from the foul line managed to escape despite just scoring 69 points. It is the lowest amount of points scored by a winning team since 1997.

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Technically, the Houston Rockets won that game and moved to 8-1 on the season, tying for the best record in the league. Technically, their defense is still among the best in the league. Technically James Harden had 35 points. In the long term, those are the only things from this game that will matter. And the sooner this team can move past this win the better. It’s best that everyone just let this game slide into the archives quickly and silently, like a roach down the drain.

Of course, if you actually want to get into what happened, fine. Just promise me (PROMISE!) that you won’t talk about this with anyone else. The Rockets somehow dragged a win out of this game, shooting horribly the whole way. Nothing went their way, and they looked poisoned and tired. Perhaps somebody in Mexico City gave the Rockets and the Timberwolves some poisoned pizza, inspired by the apocryphal tale of Jordan’s flu game’s secret genesis. Perhaps the Rockets were simply banged up and still missing two starters. Perhaps Houston got complacent while the Sixers needed to avenge a historic beatdown they had suffered the game before. Whatever the cause, it was ugly. It was low-scoring, and it was as close to a moral loss as you can get.

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  • It’s not often that young phenoms are more developed defensively than they are on the offensive end.  That’s probably because most of these guys are in their late teens and are still, for all intents and purposes, boys not yet having matured into full adulthood.  But the two guys we’ve seen so far, Andrew Wiggins and Nerlens Noel, have really impressed me.  Noel in particular, I have no doubt, will be a defensive anchor for years to come, but Wiggins also should become elite in that area with time.  I don’t know if the latter will ever have the tools offensively to be ‘great’, but he will for sure be disruptive as a wing defender.  While Harden got his numbers, last night, Wiggins did about as good of a job one could ask of a rookie against maybe the second or third best pure scorer alive.  He stayed active, used his length, and most importantly, rarely bit on any of Harden’s fakes.
  • Tracy McGrady comparisons are thrown around way too lightly as there was a span of time when every skinny, 6’8 kid to come into the league was the next T-Mac.  I’ve heard McGrady’s name come up in Wiggins talk before, and I don’t see it at all.  For one, McGrady was infinitely longer.  But more significantly, I think people don’t realize how good of a ball-handler T-Mac was, just coming into the league straight out of high school.  This was a guy at 19-20 years old, who comfortably was starting at point guard in the NBA.  Wiggins, on the other hand, doesn’t really even seem to be able to dribble much with his off hand.  This is not to say the latter won’t improve – he certainly will.  But I think we often underestimate just how great certain people were at certain things.  Playing point guard in the NBA is a very, very hard thing to do and not something you can just improve into doing.  You either have that natural feel or you don’t.  McGrady used that same skillset to blossom into one of the most devastating scorers the league had ever seen.  That’s not the bar for Wiggins, but we need to realize how wide that gap truly is.  People too often expect things to “just happen naturally”.

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Rahat said on Twitter during the first quarter that the Rockets should kill the Timberwolves, but I was worried about this game beforehand. Minnesota will not make the playoffs this season, but they are a very athletic team that has depth and likes to run. When those traits are combined with the high altitude of Mexico City, we could have looked at an undisciplined track meet which would turn in Minnesota’s favor. At times during the first half, it looked like that would be the case. There was a stretch midway through the second quarter where the two teams had a combined four straight fast break possessions, which ended with the Timberwolves gaining two points on the Rockets.

But after going through the motions for much of the first half, the Rockets woke up, turned up the defense, and took control of the game. Houston still has some kinks to work out and things which do concern me at this point in the season, namely our overreliance on Harden on the offensive end. But the fact is that the Rockets are tied for the best record in the league, have the highest point differential, and have a highly ranked offense and defense (and as much people like to spout the platitude of “defense wins championships”, the reality is that a team needs a strong offense and defense to win.) At the end of the day, there is not too much to complain about.

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Still too early, but I can’t help myself

It’s still far too early to be doing this, but I really can’t help myself.  It’s hard not to dig into the numbers given the team’s surprising success.  I’m curious right now what lineups have worked the best given the uncertainty over Houston’s rotation coming into the season.  Checking out nba.com, I found that Houston’s most effective offensive lineup so far has been the quintet of Trevor Ariza, Francisco Garcia, James Harden, Donatas Motiejunas, and Jason Terry.  That group has posted an offensive rating of 250 in 1 minute of play.  Okay, that was meant as a joke.

There have been tons of lineups that have played together in the single digits, so I’m going to dismiss all of those.  The highest ranked Rocket quintet, out of all of the groups that have played at least a decent amount together, is the unit of Ariza, Beverley, Harden, Howard, and Papanikolaou.  That group has played 19 minutes together, posting an offensive rating of 155 and a defensive rating of 101.6.

The group of Ariza, Canaan, Harden, Howard, and Motiejunas has played 20 minutes together, posting an offensive rating of 125.1 and a defensive rating of 75.8.

Ariza, Canaan, Harden, Howard, and Jones have spent 29 minutes together, posting an offensive rating of 119.2 and a defensive rating of 77.0.

And lastly, Ariza, Beverley, Harden, Howard, and Jones–the team’s desired opening night lineup–has spent just 25 minutes together, posting an offensive rating of 110.8 and a defensive rating of 92.8.

Ariza, Howard, and Harden will be mainstays in any crunch time lineup the Rockets throw out.  But I’m very interested to see which way the data leans over the course of the year with the other two spots.  Most of you guys think Motiejunas sucks, but all of the team’s best defensive units last year featured him instead of Jones as the power forward.  Then there’s Papa who I am guessing will be a part of the team’s most potent offensive units.  Lastly, what is the tradeoff between Canaan and Beverley?  Will Canaan’s offensive versatility offset Beverley’s defensive contributions.

Right now, the above sample size is far too small for anything but grins.  But in a few weeks, we’ll know enough to know what groups are working best.

 

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