Tonight is a back-to-back game for both teams – the Rockets were in Memphis doing battle with the Grizzlies, while the Pistons roll into town after a tough game in OKC. The thing is, every game has been a tough game for the Pistons thus far – they’ve lost every one (including the season opener against us) to come in with a league-worst 0-6 record. It continues a trend of starting seasons badly for the Pistons, who began last year with a catastrophic 4-20 record and the year before 0-5.
For the Rockets, this game needs to be the start of an adjustment period. We’ve seen two games in a row now where teams have looked to contain Harden and let the rest of the team beat them. This is going to be an inevitable pattern over the course of the year, and Houston are going to have to start to develop counters to it if they are to start winning games again.
There was a wrinkle in the Houston rotation last night, as the abysmal performances of Toney Douglas led McHale to give his minutes to Daequan Cook instead. This has the effect of reducing the number of ball-handlers in the rotation and forces Harden to play point guard at times, but it’s no great loss because apart from some occasionally alert defence, Douglas has been absolutely shocking thus far. His FG% of 11.1% (2-18 shooting) is the second worst in the league among players who’ve taken at least 10 shots over the course of the season so far, he has dished a grand total of 7 assists and perhaps the only good thing in his statline is that he has only turned the ball over 3 times in his 51 minutes of play. Unfortunately, Cook only played 6 minutes, so the guard rotation was even shorter than it usually is. It remains to be seen whether this will come back to bite the Rockets as legs get tired towards the end of this game.
McHale showed no inclination of expanding the rotation to take into account the back-to-back last week. I suspect this is because the guys who are logging heavy minutes and are tired are in the backcourt, where he does not have adequate replacements. With the demotion of Douglas, it may give Machado an opportunity to get some burn (although the dearth of rookie minutes thus far that seems unlikely). Either way, I’ll be a little disappointed if Harden and Lin look gassed at the end of the game and McHale doesn’t try something to alleviate it a bit.
We’ve already met the Detroit Pistons once, and I expect that lineup-wise they won’t have changed much from last time. They will start Knight, Stuckey, Prince, Maxiell and Monroe. In the front court, they will mix and match between the two starting bigs, Jonas Jerebko and Andre Drummond. As far as I can tell, Pistons fans are so excited by the prospect of seeing Monroe and Drummond in action together that they’re not actually all that bummed to be 0-6. Going forward that’s the plan, and they got their first time on the court together in last night’s loss to OKC. Expect to see more of that tandem tonight. In the front court, the Pistons can bring in Will Bynum for some undersized offence, and rookies Kyle Singler and Kim English for some three point shooting. The latter two have impressed thus far in limited time, particularly Singler, who has shown that he is a capable defender. Reminds me a bit of Parsons last year, actually, except without the spectacular tip-jams.
This is where the Rockets need to find improvements. Harden has been quite convincingly shut down in two consecutive games, and when that’s happened there has been precious little to write home about in terms of offensive flow or execution. The good news is that unlike our last two opponents the Pistons do not have a wing stopper of the calibre of Iguodala or Allen. Once upon a time, Tayshaun Prince was talked about in the same terms as those guys, but those days are gone and nowadays he is not quite the shutdown defender he used to be. He can still be pesky from time to time due to his huge wingspan, but I would expect Harden to have something of a bounce back game without as imposing a defender in front of him. I don’t think we’ll see him reach the heights of the first two games though, because we can already see teams starting to game plan against the Rockets’ bread and butter. Teams are packing the paint and making it hard to get off shots from near the basket. Over the last three games opponents have averaged 7 blocked shots a game against us, and it has led to Harden pulling up a bit earlier and attempting more mid-range jumpers (without much success).
In last night’s game, the Rockets did not get a single fast-break point until mid-way through the 4th quarter. A lot of the credit for that can be attributed to excellent transition defence by the Grizzlies, but it was also in part because we just weren’t running off the misses quite as well as we had in previous games. This is something that must be rectified right away – in the half court the Houston are mediocre and their sets are still very basic, so attempting to subsist solely on that for points is a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, the Pistons are pretty terrible in defending this area, so there should be plenty of opportunities to fix this tonight.
In fact, the Pistons are generally a terrible defensive team. The season is still young, but they currently rank second last in terms of points conceded per 100 possessions, beating only Charlotte. None of their frontcourt guys are particularly great defenders (though Drummond could be in time and Monroe has shown signs of improving a bit this season), and in today’s NBA, that’s going to lead to a lot of points being put on you. Their backcourt is a bit undersized, so while Stuckey and Bynum can be occasionally pesky by reaching in for steals and the like, they should struggle to contain Lin and Harden’s pick and rolls.
McHale had a lot of success playing a small ball lineup against the Grizzlies last night – it brought us back into the game in the 4th quarter. I don’t think he will need it tonight unless it’s urgent to stop Detroit playing both Drummond and Monroe at the same time, but he might give it another run for a few minutes if any of the big guys pick up a knock. Jerebko wouldn’t be particularly inconvenienced by matching up with Parsons at PF, but Maxiell is pretty awful out on the perimeter and this is one way you can get him out there.
When the Pistons are on offence, it’s all about Greg Monroe. He’s a very gifted offensive player, with great passing for a big man and good footspeed. He really struggled in the opener against us, with Asik doing a great job at defending him in the post. Since then though, he has migrated slightly further away from the basket and this makes him much more of a threat. In last night’s game against the Thunder, he had several very nice moves starting from the elbow where he would face up his man and then blow past them for the lay-in. If he continues to go to that, he should be more effective in this game than he was last time around. Setting him up in more of a high-post area opens up more scope for him to use his passing abilities to get his teammates into play. One of the reasons Pistons fans are so excited about the prospect of a Monroe-Drummond pairing is that Monroe’s passing should make life much easier for Drummond (more on him later).
There are few players who can genuinely say they’ve had as bad a start to the season as Toney Douglas. One of them is Rodney Stuckey. His shooting performance of 5-14 last night against OKC was his best of the season at a blazing 35%, which is lights-out in comparison to his season average of 21%. The problem with that 21% is that it’s not coming from a low-usage guy: Stuckey is taking 10 shots per game! Fear not, we are not the only team to have suffered shooting woes so far this season.
The Pistons do have a few young guys who can shoot the three – Brandon Knight will be in the starting lineup plus Kyle Singler and Kim English off the bench will be taking threes. The knock on Knight is that while he has been shooting well, he’s still not a great distributor for this team. This is problematic on a roster that’s already full of combo guards who are better off the ball. A lot of his skill set overlaps with Stuckey, leading some observers to predict that Stuckey is on his way out of Detroit (although who’s going to want him given how he’s been shooting recently?).
You should expect to see Prince taking quite a few mid-range shots. Fortunately for us, he’s not especially good at them, or at least not as good as he would need to be to make it an efficient option on offence. The key with Prince is keeping him away from the basket – a couple of years ago he led the league in at-rim percentage. You should see whoever is guarding Prince shade off him slightly to cut off the drive and bait him into taking those jumpers.
Off the bench, Jerebko will provide energy and some rebounding. He’s not quite in the same class as a Kenneth Faried or a Zach Randolph though, so hopefully Asik will be able to get back to shutting out opponents from the defensive glass. Drummond had a bit of a breakout game against the Thunder last night, with 22 points and 8 rebounds in 21 minutes of play. He played particularly well with Monroe, getting several feeds to finish. At this point, he’s not going to create anything for himself, but he will give you put backs and dunks if left open.