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Rockets Daily: Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

My apologies to those who are viewing this page in response to my earlier tweet — I learned this morning we will not have video capabilities until later this month due to some geographical constraints.

We’ll be experimenting with the game review format this year, but at the moment, I’m leaning towards appending my own thoughts within each Rockets Daily, for tidiness’s sake, but this is, of course, subject to change.  The bullets which ensue are my own observations from last night’s preseason opener, and the note’s thereafter were scribed by Jacob in accordance with his Daily obligations.

  • Yao: Inconclusive verdict on the big man’s return.  What’s difficult in evaluating this comeback is that Yao is always slow and clumsy.  I can’t pass judgment upon the status of his recovery when there isn’t really even much of a barometer.  I tried watching for familiar positive tendencies, but only really noted that he fell down about four times in a span of five minutes.  This put a smile on my face with knowing comfort that the friendly giant was back.
  • Yao was obliterated by Dwight Howard when matched head to head, an oddity in the history of their duels. This was probably to be expected due to the recovery, but I also wondered how much of Howard’s success last night came as result of his trainings with the Dream?  He always had that spin move–the one he used last night about ten times–but I can’t remember him being able to finish when using it against Yao, before last night.
  • During Yao’s first stint, the most interesting thing I noted was that only Kevin Martin was used as a post-entry passer.  This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but sometimes, it’s the obvious events that catch our attention: “that makes so much sense – I can’t believe they realized that was a good idea.” I personally thought the two looked great together, but then again, Yao wasn’t fronted during the sequence.  Martin was able to feed Yao cleanly and on one particular play, worked a beautiful give-and-go with the giant, resulting in a backdoor layup.  It seemed clear that the team plans to use these two in tandem to amplify each’s strengths.
  • During most of his time on the court, Yao was used in the high post.  I don’t know if this was due to a desire for slow acclimation or whether this will be his role in the offense.
  • Yao walked to the lockerroom following his exit from the game, apparently grimacing as he left.  I did not notice any facial expressions out of the ordinary–I thought the grimaces were ordinary for Yao–until it came to my attention by a Jonathan Feigen tweet that there was possibly concern.  Feigen noted, however, that because no trainers were accompanying Yao, things were probably ‘ok.’  As of this AM, that’s where things stand.
  • As I said, overall, I have no verdict on Yao’s return.  I thought he looked decent enough and should improve once he works off the rust.  He looked slow and a bit awkward but that’s normal even at full health.  We’ll just have to take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.  However, it did seem a bit weird actually having a post presence for once.
  • Aaron Brooks caught fire for a bit immediately following Yao’s first exit from the game, probably adding fuel to the belief of many that he would be better served in a Vinnie Johnson role.  He had a play where he dribbled from the paint back out to the arc and fired, resulting in a swish, something that probably wouldn’t have been sanctioned with Yao in the game.  It will never be done, just because it would be harmful for chemistry, but AB might just be at his best when he can be given the full green light.
  • Clyde remarked that AB was a top-5 point guard in this league, leading me to wonder who of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, and Steve Nash was inferior.
  • Speaking of Clyde, it felt a bit weird hearing him call a Rashard Lewis game because the latter, in many Houstonians’ minds, was actually supposed to be his successor.  If you recall, Lewis started his career as a shooting guard (with the Sonics), and was passed over three times in the first round by Houston after growing in our backyard.  Carrol Dawson squandered draft choices on Bryce Drew and Mirsad Turkcan and the rest became history.
  • I felt Jordan Hill looked pretty bad leading me to worry about the devaluation potential of our assets.  The Knicks picks, as we know, are subject to New York’s performance, and ESPN’s John Hollinger has opined that that team could even make the playoffs.  As for Hill, if it ends up that he sucks, and other teams find out that he sucks, his trade value becomes on par with Mikki Moore’s.  I adamantly maintained last year that Jordan Hill would be an impact ’4′ in this league at some point, but I haven’t seen much improvement.  He looked downright awful in the summer league and didn’t show much last night.  Keep in mind that I am not at all disconcerted by witnessing what remains an atrociously awkward post-game; I never thought Hill could be that kind of player and did not hold expectations of development in that area.  What I hoped was that he would gain weight and show improvement as a Noah-esque garbageman, but I haven’t really seen anything that would lead me to conclude that said improvement was made.
  • Kyle Lowry looked fantastic and can absolutely serve as a starting point guard in this league.  The only befitting description is that he simply looks like a general when with the ball, impeccably controlling spacing and flow.
  • The guy who most impressed me last night was Courtney Lee, humorous because, as I had momentarily forgotten of his acquisition, I briefly wondered, upon his entrance, how I had missed that the team had signed Lloyd Banks.
  • Lee had remarked, in a Rockets.com interview, that he was the fastest player on the team.  At the time, I readily dismissed this as the delusion-laden machismo for which most athletes are known.  After last night, I stand corrected.  Lee literally explodes when accelerating; he’s probably the fastest wing this team has ever seen, including Vernon Maxwell.  I found myself amazed that a wing could have that kind of velocity with the ball.
  • Lee hit jumpers going to both his left and right, the latter coming as a leaner with a defender in his face, abilities which will serve him well in this offense.
  • One play that stood out came with 1:04 remaining in the 3rd, when Courtney gave evidence to the cerebral tendencies for which he has been lauded.  On the right wing, he was trapped, picking up his dribble.  (Never mind the fact that Trevor Ariza would have awkwardly pivoted and flung what he considered a fadeaway, at this point), Lee didn’t just pass out to a teammate as any smart player would do.  Rather, he held the ball, motioning to Jordan Hill to move to the spot in front of him.  It took him a while to get the message to Hill, but he patiently insisted until the big man complied.  After the pass, Lee moved back out next to Hill, retrieving the ball and saving the play.  It’s these small things that add up over the course of games, and even seasons, that impact the aggregate, and upon which Daryl Morey’s staff certainly places value.
  • Since the trade, I had been making a comparison between Lee and Kyle Lowry, basing the analogy on what I expected to be a ‘surprise production’ from the former, similar to what was produced by the ex-Grizzlies guard.  After last night, I realized the comparison was much closer than I had thought: Lee’s game is actually quite similar to Lowry’s and I can see now why the possibility of playing him as a backup ’1′ was discussed.  Courtney actually has very good handles for a wing and even dribbles similar to Lowry, pounding the ball hard and staying close when turning around picks.  (There were a few times when I actually thought Lee was Lowry, despite their drastically different body types.)  Like Lowry, he also can’t be asked to break his man off the dribble in isolation, something which was to be expected.  Nevertheless, Lee is steady and never ventures from his comfort zone and abilities, a drastic departure in style from his predecessor.

Rahat Huq

Something about seeing huge men in their new tightly fitting, almost universally awkward-looking jerseys in the beginning of October just brings a smile to my face. Regardless of the obvious foreignness of the situation, something about Tuesday night screamed “home”. Maybe the Houston Rockets looked more like a team with an identity than it has in recent starts to the season; perhaps all of this summer’s acquisitions excited us simply by gracing us with their presences. The feeling was as inescapable as it was irrelevant to the proceedings taking place on the actual court, a game that ended in a too-close 97-88 Orlando Magic victory.

Despite the prevailing belief that fans would get some definitive view of Yao, enabling us all to supersede the doctors and diagnose exactly how much damage we think that foot can take, no such evidence was provided last night. His slowness and dragging reaction times could easily be blamed on inactivity, injury and God-given, molasses-style quickness. Or— and for those of us planning on cheering for a team wearing hardware anytime soon, this is the truly terrifying part— Dwight Howard may have reached another level, one on which the girth of Yao simply leaves a greater canvas for an array of spin moves and our giant’s towering stature only serves to make Howard’s bank shot jumper look all the more awe-inspiring. This Howard was not the easily frustrated, incorrigible man-child that seemed destined to languish in this league’s second stratosphere of superstar, ably filling David Robinson’s role of boring genius unlikely to win; no, this Howard got his quickly and efficiently, while never appearing to do so much that his “be everywhere” defensive style was impeded (I would like to make sure my opinion of Robinson is not misunderstood; his offensive skill set was lightyears ahead of Howard’s thus far, but I think their reputations are similar). Trying to grade Yao’s attempts at containing this unstoppable force seems not only pointless, but cruel.

Still, those looking for big splashes from the Rockets found their moments. Kyle Lowry was every bit the team leader the Rockets thought him to be given his contract this offseason; seeing him post up guards that are obviously his size so masterfully reminds me of the endless possibilities for the young bulldog. Aaron Brooks’ jumper makes almost anyone else’s look bad when it goes in; unfortunately, he also played to his other strength by repeatedly driving head-on into traffic, racking up turnovers and broken possessions instead of drawing fouls on opponents. Many players seemed out of sorts, repeatedly picking up their dribbles and allowing superb Orlando wing defense to cause possessions to aimlessly fizzle into bad perimeter shots. Courtney Lee and his “1 ability” found themselves on the wrong end of this motif repeatedly; therefore, we could all be thankful when we found out Lee is part rocket (oh, the puns I could abuse here were I a more fun man). His speed on the fast break is jaw-dropping, the kind of game changing ability that will allow the team’s second unit to be quite successful even though Budinger is the only natural scorer in it. Despite negative plus-minus numbers all around (one game of such a stat is meaningless, so you can imagine exactly how inconsequential it is in the preseason), the fleet-style bench looked phenomenal, providing the only real team defense this outfit can produce without an intimidating Yao. Lee and Lowry are great harassing wing defenders, making the offense move at a speed with which it’s simply uncomfortable; Hill allows them to do this because of his ability to roam and protect the paint, though Gortat humiliated him a few time because of these same tendencies.

There was much to be gathered, but the biggest question went to the locker room with six minutes left in the first half, never to be seen again. Expect a lot of unanswered queries at the beginning of this year. Just be glad it’s finally here.

Box Score

Magic Basketball Game Recap

  • Apparently, Rockets fans weren’t the only ones basking in the greatness of Dwight Howard last night. The Orlando Sentinel seems to think it may have already found its watershed moment, focusing on a first quarter that made Howard seem the world-beater that his physique and athleticism always promised: “Hardly anyone will care months from now that the Orlando Magic defeated the Houston Rockets 97-88 in the preseason opener for both teams. But maybe, just maybe, the exhibition in this southern Texas border city will be remembered as the night Howard’s repertoire showed true growth. ‘I’m just playing and working on my game,’ Howard said afterward. ‘If I hit shots, I hit a shot. But I’m not really focused on that. My job is help my teammates get better and help us get better. We’ve got a long season.’”
  • In contrast to the Sentinel’s ebullience about the Magic’s flourishing big man, Jonathan Feigen’s Chronicle article mostly focuses on what has to come rather than what was. Feigen brings up the important point that Yao’s presence diminished as the game wore on, a fault that can be easily explained away by his inferior conditioning in comparison with the rest of the NBA. Feigen’s companion blog also took a look at Yao’s “shortcomings”, and it included an interesting soundbite from the victor about his ailing opponent:”‘He’s getting back into it,’ Howard said. ‘He’s still physical. I think he’s just trying to get back right. I’m just happy to see him on the floor and hopefully he continues to play.’ Eventually, he will expect to match up well with Howard. He always has. He will expect to do the things he could before the surgery and the 15 months off the court. He does not expect that now. The good news was that he expects it eventually, with Tuesday’s game another step toward getting there.”
  • Watching Yao recover feels exhausting itself, as the constant edge-of-your-seat drama involved causes more ulcers than racing hearts. In this brilliant piece by Sam Amick, Yao admits that a large part of his recovery will be mental, understanding what he can and can’t do and when he can and can’t do those things. His is a slow recovery, one which won’t lack for scares along the way; therefore, if this feels depressingly soon to be treating a superstar as if he’s a brittle old veteran, that’s because it is: “‘I already created a lot of troubles by saying I might retire or something, so I don’t want to get your misunderstanding on this, but I’ll still try my best,’ said Yao, who missed the 2008 NBA playoffs after breaking the left foot for the first time but rushed back to play with his national team in the Beijing Olympics that summer. ‘I’ll still get back to playing the sport I’ve been playing for 20 years and has brought me a lot of fun, and gave me a very successful feeling during my career. I don’t want to let go that easily. … I’m going to still try hard to get back, but I know if one day is the day, then that’s the day. It’s just a matter of time.’
    That outlook wasn’t supposed to come so soon. But the severity of his situation, the harsh reality that he stands on the brink of either a new beginning or a bitter end, has come with a long-overdue benefit for Yao. Suddenly, it’s acceptable to think short-term, to take a day-by-day approach that just so happens to block out the big picture that so often weighed him down. Tonight, he’ll face off in Hidalgo, Texas, against Orlando’s Dwight Howard, the matchup that was once great basketball theater having changed immensely since last they saw each other. As for tomorrow? No need to go there until you get there.”
  • As the world awaits FreeDarko’s newest media sensation, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the team over at its blog have begun a series called Dream Week dedicated to one of the most “Free Darko” players of all-time and childhood hero to the city of Houston, Hakeem Olajuwon. So far, a piece dedicated to Scottie Brooks (and Jadakiss) has been written as well as a brilliantly human anecdote from novelist Pasha Malla regarding Olajuwon’s one-year dalliance with the Raptors. I sincerely hope readers keep up with this week of awesome, combining one of the Rockets’ greatest players and some of basketball’s greatest writers.

Jacob Mustafa

in columns

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.