In general, preseasons flesh out the ends of rosters and rearrange rotations; fringe players are made and unmade by their performances, and coaches experiment at will with the end of the rotation, desperately angling for that one key difference, that one variable, that could cause a team to take “the leap”. Unless the team in question is the Houston Rockets. In that case, the bench simply does everything right. Harassing, unflinching defense? Embedded in its bones. Raw firepower in transition? Check. Consistent ball movement that takes into account every player’s strengths? A bench unit simply couldn’t look better conceived or coached. Sadly, though, this bench may never see the light of day.
A Lowry-Lee backcourt, despite numerous possessions in yesterday’s game that made it glaringly obvious that Lee should not be handling the ball for entire possessions or creating his own shot off the dribble, may prove to be deadly in a league where benches, particularly their offensive stalwarts, are made up of undersized gunners who are supposed to take the scoring load upon their backs. Not only does the relentless, bothersome perimeter defense of these two cause hell for opposing backcourts looking forward to shooting at will, but it also enables the two incredibly fast men (I can not put into words how impressed I am with Lee’s speed in the fast break. It is simply marvelous) to blaze down the court in transition off of missed jumpers and steals. Hayes and Hill, though suspect rebounders, find their way to the ball and to points more efficiently than any other bigs have in the first two preseason games. In fact, after an opening game in which Hill looked legitimately frightened on offense (maybe because of the expectations for the team this year, maybe due to the battle that is taking place for his minutes, maybe he just watched a Japanese horror film; I don’t know), he exploded (OK, maybe a tad extreme) for 16 points on 9 shots, further putting the Rockets’ rotation at the 4 and 5 positions in question. The bench simply outperformed a middling Spurs unit, which was admittedly playing its first game together. Rookie Marcus Cousin, a UH product, did create issues for the Hill/Hayes frontcourt on the boards, something that may be fixed when Brad Miller is brought back into the fold; however, when that does happen, what does that mean for Hayes, Hill and wide-eyed but hungry rookie Patrick Patterson?
It is important to note that the Rockets did have a starting lineup that mostly played well in the team’s 90-87 victory at home. Though the big fella has found himself an inefficient scorer in the first two games, Yao did find the time in his almost-13-minute showing to nab seven rebounds and three blocks, staggering numbers when extrapolated into per 36 numbers (too bad we won’t see him play that many minutes once this year). His presence on offense has opened up shots for the Rockets’ shooting-friendly backcourt; Brooks and Martin combined for a tidy 35 points on 21 shots, though much of that was scored against the Spurs’ B-team in the third quarter. The team’s offense, while never particularly fluid, seemed consistently efficient throughout the night, though the team only shot 40% from the field. Even in a close game like this, there is an obvious variable which separates the winning squad from the losing one, and in this match, as in many others before it, the game changer was the sheer amount of free throws taken by the Rockets, most notably Kevin Martin’s 9-11 mark from the stripe. As much as we want to pat Martin on the back (but not the butt) for his ineffable ability to get fouled, a lot of those free throws could be attributed to the staggering three three-point attempts on which Houston Rockets found themselves fouled in the second half. As great as Martin is at contorting his body towards contact, those are the kind of numbers I don’t see repeating themselves.
That defined a lot of Thursday’s game; Brooks, Hill and Martin all shined, but much of it is to be questioned in future outings because of all the things that could have (and maybe should have) gone wrong in a game the Rockets only pulled out in the closing seconds. Perhaps their performances are to be repeated as Yao returns to a level of play that matches his magnificent size, but those are, like most preseason thoughts, the kinds of bets on which I wouldn’t be willing to put my money.
And now, the links:
- It turns out everyone noticed exactly how good Hill looked last night, including the Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen. Too bad Rick Adelman can’t be counted among the impressed crowd: “’He’s the most athletic big guy we have,’ Adelman said. ‘We need him to be that. By the same token, he needs to be consistent. He can’t be up and down. It’s got to be a consistent effort.’ They got that much on Thursday as Hill moved a night closer to giving the Rockets what they so clearly need. For now, however, Adelman offered mixed reviews. ‘He was OK,’ Adelman said. ‘He’s got to be more consistent. We talked about that. He made some fouls he didn’t have to make. He’s got to be more consistent in his concentration. He gave the effort and he was effective. You’ve just got to see growth in him.’”
- The San Antonio Express-News‘ Tim Griffin noted what many who watched Thursday’s Rockets win did on his blog post about yesterday’s game: there were a lot more names on the court for the Rockets than the Spurs. While I agree that much of the Rockets’ victory could be attributed to the Spurs’ extremely bench-heavy rotation, it’s important to remember that the Rockets are trying to get Yao action so as to get him acclimated; given that, his starting unit should be by his side, so that the entire team can learn to play through him (at least for 24 minutes a night). Still, Griffin’s point remains salient and should remind everyone taking a little too much from this game about how it was won.
- Dejuan Blair wanted to know how big Yao Ming really was after missing out on a chance to match up with the behemoth in his rookie year, thanks to the latter’s foot injury. What was Blair’s take after matching up against him? “Oh Lord. He’s huge.”
- The San Antonio Spurs have always been a very NBA-like success story, a team that has thrived in a small market due to nifty spending and consistent winning. In this “spendthrift” era of the new NBA (you say “bleeding money”, I say “Joe Johnson”), the Spurs have taken an even more drastic step in that direction, cutting the team’s roster to only 14 going into the season. Garrett Temple just can’t catch a break. Bobby Simmons, on the other hand, has had his fair share of those.
- I completely understand why Washington Wizards followers and fans want to deal former All-Star Gilbert Arenas. He’s aging, coming off of one of the more embarrassing, public personal failures in NBA history and grossly overpaid. What I don’t understand exactly is which team would ever fathom taking on his insane contract.
- Speaking of teams trying to make themselves unaccountable for managerial mistakes, David Stern talks to The New York Times about how he plans to save teams from themselves with the upcoming collective bargaining agreement, citing the New York Knicks as an example of a team that has had an abused fan base because of current salary cap regulations. I think it makes total sense to try and find a way to protect bad management and not reward those who have spent judiciously and thoughtfully (I am trying to express my sarcasm so hard. So hard).
- Another day, another great FreeDarko essay about Hakeem Olajuwon. Today, Straight Bangin’s Joey Litman muses about Robert Horry and Litman’s epiphany about teamwork brought about by the champion Rockets of the Nineties.
- Say what you will about LeBron James, but he’s the NBA’s best player. By quite a bit, if I’m being honest. As much hatred as he may have garnered this offseason, it makes me greatly appreciate Houston’s front office to know that Daryl Morey was the only non-mad (or obtuse) GM to predict that LeBron James would likely be the league’s MVP this year.