After a morale boosting but not particularly notable win against the Detroit Pistons, Houston face the most daunting task of their young season – a match up with last year’s champions, the Miami Heat. The Rockets do have a couple of minor advantages up their sleeve – the Heat are flying in from taking a beatdown from the Grizzlies last night, and two of their big three are not at 100% right now. LeBron banged his knee while playing against the Hawks on Friday, and is quoted as saying that if the Grizzlies game had been on Saturday he might not have played. Wade, meanwhile, played through illness last night and was noticeably less effective than usual, shooting only 3-15 from the floor. On the flipside though, Houston continue to be without their coach, as McHale’s leave of absence due to a family illness continues. We wish him and his family all the best.
Under Coach Spoelstra, the Heat have become more and more adventurous with the small ball concept. In his third season, that has reached it’s natural conclusion – Miami has ditched its need for a traditional centre and now plays a lot of lineups with Bosh as a stretch 5. Their starting lineup of Chalmers/Wade/Battier/James/ Bosh exemplifies this. Off the bench they will bring in Norris Cole to run the point, Ray Allen and Mike Miller to shoot threes, Rashard Lewis if they want to spread the floor and Udonis Haslem if they need some inside presence. Notice that none of these guys are traditional centres either. It remains to be seen if Spoelstra will modify his rotation to take into account the back-to-back and the ailments bothering his stars (although LeBron looked fine last night so that’s probably slightly overblown), but he’s got plenty of pieces to plug into his a-positional scheme.
For the Rockets, with McHale out Kelvin Sampson takes up the reins. He brings a slightly looser leash for the rookie prospects on the team – Terrence Jones got some actual rotation minutes last night! Both he and Motiejunas got some garbage time as well. If there’s garbage time tonight though, it’s much more likely to be in the opposite direction. Facing the Heat this year is a difficult coaching challenge, and it will be interesting to see how Sampson handles his rotations in light of the Heat’s positional unorthodoxy. Without weapons in the frontcourt to hurt the Heat he may opt to match the small ball style, which means a lot of minutes for Chandler Parsons and Marcus Morris.
The blueprint for beating the Heat was laid out last night by the Grizzlies. You need a combination of talent inside to force the Heat’s smaller defenders to help and strong outside three point shooting to punish them for doing so. Unfortunately, the Rockets have neither of these things.
All is not lost for Houston, however. In past years it has been stingy defence that has keyed Miami’s success. However, so far this year they are ranked only 23rd in defensive efficiency. The main reason for that is that Miami is really not doing a good job against three point shooters this season. They are currently last in the league for 3 point attempts allowed and 27th in opponent 3 point percentage. If Parsons and Delfino can make their shots from beyond the arc, they may be able to keep that trend going. A duplication of Wayne Ellington’s performance from last night would be nice. The need for three point shooting may induce Sampson to give Daequan Cook some playing time. He’s been awful for the Rockets so far, but outside shooting is his speciality after all. Since Morris is likely to be seeing a lot of time tonight, it would be great if he could continue to contribute in this area too.
Where Houston is going to struggle is against Miami’s pressure defence. If you cast your minds back to the heights of Linsanity last year, you’ll remember Lin getting absolutely shut down when New York went to visit the Heat. This was principally down to Mario Chalmers, who did a stellar job of pressuring Lin and not allowing him to settle. Other teams have since adopted a similar tactic – Jerryd Bayless was very effective in a similar role last week. I expect Miami to adopt a similar strategy this time, with the aggressive trapping that has been their hallmark in recent years. After all, Houston’s turnover issues are not solely due to Lin – the rest of the team has found it hard to deal with similar pressure so far this season too. Don’t expect that 29th in the league mark in turnover percentage (16.8%, better only than Oklahoma City. Didn’t expect them to be last in that category, did you?) to improve after this game!
This is where it’s going to be tough for the Rockets. It starts with Chris Bosh. When faced with a LaMarcus Aldridge, another big man with range, Houston opted to put Patterson on him and leave Asik to cover the paint. The Heat take away this option because they don’t leave another big man in the paint for Asik to guard. So Asik is going to have to step a little bit outside of his comfort zone in order to stay with Bosh out on the perimeter. Asik has shown that he is capable of staying with quick footed centres, doing an excellent job with Monroe in the two games against the Pistons. But this is a much tougher proposition – Bosh’s range extends to the three point line and he has been using his speed to abuse big men off the dribble when the go out there to guard him.
Simultaneously, Houston are going to have to find a way to keep the rest of the Miami team from penetrating. If Asik has to move out to cover Bosh, it leaves a huge amount of space for the driving and slashing games of Wade, LeBron and Chalmers. If the interior presence isn’t there, then defenders have to do a better job of staying in front of their man. Not straightforward when that man is Wade or James!
Of course, whoever guards James is going to have to try to contain his much ballyhooed post game. It will be interesting to see how Sampson approaches this. Traditionally, you would use a wing stopper like Parsons on LeBron, but there is a weight mismatch there and James will be happy to abuse him on the block. I suspect that will still be the primary option, but we may end up seeing the PFs trying to guard him from time to time as well. Will Patterson be able to do the job? I thought he did very good work when matched up 1-on-1 against Randolph in the post (although he did not do a good job boxing out once the shot had gone up). James is more of a speed player though, and I think that will prove to be Patterson’s undoing. On the surface, Morris is the sort of player you would want guarding James. He’s got the tweener skillset necessary to guard in the post or on the perimeter. But I worry that Morris is still a bit too green to do well in this assignment.
We know the Houston coaching staff are putting a lot of emphasis on good rotations. The Heat will test this to the limit. They have a lineup full of three point shooters, and they’ve been elevating ball movement on the perimeter to a thing of beauty this season. It is not enough to contain the drive with Miami, because if you sag they can kill you from the outside. To defend against this you need crisp defensive rotations, and for that reason I don’t expect to see another Terrence Jones sighting tonight unless the game gets out of hand. He’s still a bit too raw in that area to be relied on, even if his shot-blocking would be welcome.
The Rockets will need to catch fire from the three point line if they’re to stand a chance of winning this game. In the end, the sophistication of the Heat offence and the difficult questions their schemes ask of the Houston defence should take its toll, and Houston’s much more basic systems will not be able to match them. Expect a comfortable win for Miami.