Little will be made of a Houston Rockets preseason loss minus five players, including three starters, even against the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. Similarly, losses against powerhouse offenses, those unstoppable forces, at least in the preseason, will likely be shrugged off. As sad as it seems, in Sunday’s 99-93 loss, the Rockets allowed the Cavs’ offense to appear as such, gradually giving Cleveland confidence through lackadaisical defensive effort until a 32-point burst in the 4th quarter led the suddenly offensively potent team to victory. As often as you’ll hear me say that the final score in these games couldn’t be more irrelevant, the way by which the Rockets fell on its home court felt noteworthy.
Before completely relegating the Cavs’ offensive performance to “exceptional only because of the weakness of the opposing defense”-land (a frustratingly named place, to say the least), the game’s leading scorer and rebounder, third-year stud J.J. Hickson, should be pointed out for his seeming omnipresence both on the fast break and in the paint. The young power forward that had thrived occasionally but ultimately been eclipsed by the shadow of LeBron James saw exactly what would happen if the perennially highly effective Cleveland fast break suddenly started ended with him holding the ball instead of the King: easy points. And were they ever easy. Channeling a young Shawn Kemp or Amar’e Stoudemire, Hickson bounded about the paint (and far above it) on break after break, utterly possessing the transition game in a way I had never before seen him do prior to this game. And the Rockets, try as it might, could not stop helping Hickson and the Cavs by handing the ball over, allowing an embarrassing 19 turnovers, including four from the usually reliable Chuck Hayes, whose sticky hands have won the Rockets more than a game or two. Still, the Rockets didn’t only give this game away by handing the ball to them; thanks to the lack of an interior presence in the absence of both Yao and Brad Miller, Byron Scott found hole after hole for his cutters to exploit, running basic backdoor screens that allowed a Cavs team that knew its weaknesses (outside shooting, outside shooting, creating off the dribble and outside shooting) to find easy paths to the bucket time and again through off-the-ball movement and heady passing.
Any Rockets congratulations, therefore, almost always must be tempered by regrets about the defensive effort put forth by the players in question. Chase Budinger, after a few games of seeming hesitant, finally saw his green light, shooting away and putting up a respectable line at first glance (13 points, 10 boards); however, he got his on 14 shots (not necessarily anything to harangue the sophomore about, as he’ll need to continue to shoot for this bench unit to be effective this year) while throwing in some abysmal defense, watching the action of fast breaks and gladly getting stuck behind countless screens, neglecting to use athleticism and speed we all know is present in the blond-haired gunner. He wasn’t alone, though, as specialist Jared Jeffries eventually ran out of ridiculous shots to hit and charges to take (yes, I know he’s incredibly good at it, but the man is 6’11″; how about even feigning one attempt to block a shot?), watching as Hickson flew by him numerous times on his way to another highlight reel dunk (seriously, the kid looked like Amar’e out there; the explosiveness, the aggression, the soft touch around the rim- all auspicious signs for Cleveland’s future). As for the rest of the team, the numbers don’t lie: 43 points on 45 shots for the Rockets’ five leaders in minutes played, 43% shooting overall. The Rockets looked at the Cavs team and thought it weak, and Houston was subsequently punished all night for its hubris by watching jumper after jumper clank against the iron while completely ignoring any kind of offensive plan.
While the majority of the Rockets that saw the floor Sunday night may not ever see many minutes this year (allowing Rockets fans to hopefully place more value in Saturday’s punishing defeat of the Indiana Pacers), the team’s weaknesses looked indicative of future defensive tendencies without the biggest of men in the middle, an absence which will apparently be felt 24 minutes every night, not including the back-to-back games that he will simply skip. Everyone, 2-12 on the roster, needs to be ready for life without Yao because the team (and fan base) has high expectations with or without him on the court this year.
On with the links…
- The Cleveland Cavaliers found its way to Sunday night’s win without its most recognizable player still remaining from the Age of LeBron, Mo Williams; his replacement, newcomer Ramon Sessions, seemed more than happy to have escaped the purgatory that Minnesota Timberwolves GM David Kahn signed him, along with every other available point guard in the NBA, last offseason. Though Williams is a friend of Sessions’, the younger point guard couldn’t help but feel blessed to get another chance to start thanks to Williams’ injury, particularly being able to work under the wing of new coach Scott (who has done some good things with point guards if you weren’t aware), and Sessions expressed his acknowledgement of the moment to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer: “When Cavaliers guard Ramon Sessions was a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007-08, an older, wiser teammate Mo Williams taught him a valuable lesson. Sessions never forgot it, and he doesn’t hesitate when asked to name the most important thing Williams taught him. ‘To cherish every moment in this league,’ Sessions said. ‘You never know when you’re going to get a moment.’ Sessions’ moment is now. Ironically, it’s because Williams, his best friend, is out of the Cavaliers’ lineup with a groin injury.”
- Jonathan Feigen, along with the rest of the Rockets fan base, seems excited about Saturday night’s game, in which Yao Ming helped the Rockets skunk the Pacers by 34, throwing in 10 points, 4 rebounds and a couple blocks on his own in his 12-minute run. Feigen talked to Yao about the performance, and the biggest of fellas gave a remarkably candid and, for Rockets and post-play fans around the world, encouraging response: “The foolishness of the rush to judgment about Yao Ming’s play in the first two games was not just about ignoring 15 months of relative inactivity. That was foolish, of course. Consider staying away from anything you do athletically – golf, tennis, jogging – for 15 months and do nothing that involves feet for much of that time and then think of what you would be when you picked it up again. But even beyond that, it seemed only natural that Yao would spend some time checking out his progress, stepping cautiously back into competition. ‘That really gave me that feeling back, not just the physical but mentally,’ Yao said. ‘Mentally is built by your physical. If you are confident with your body, you’re not afraid to hit people, not afraid to take hard foul or to fight. Then you can build the next step, which is mentally.'”
- Saturday night, the Houston Rockets kicked up the awesome meter several notches (oh yes, I said several), especially Budinger, Courtney Lee and rookie point guard Ish Smith. The world took notice.
- Over at NBA Playbook, the fantastic Sebastian Pruiti has been keeping track of Yao Ming’s progress in his return. The prognosis? His offense seems like it will get back to the level of offensive production to which the world has grown accustomed from Yao. His defense, however, may leave Rockets fans groaning and pitying all at once this year.
- Tom Ziller and Bethlehem Shoals have a warm, fresh Houston Rockets preview just for you in today’s Works.