Unarguably the most curious development of this young season had been, up to this point, the conspicuous absence of Houston’s heralded rookies from the lineup. After being featured heavily during the preseason, and after having turned in stellar summer camp performances, the trio of Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, and Royce White hadn’t seen a single minute all year. Today, with assistant coach Kelvin Sampson acting in place of Kevin McHale (on leave of absence for the illness of his daughter), that changed.Donatas Motiejunas saw five minutes of garbage time action, scoring three points and earning a trip to the line in that frame. Upon checking in, he immediately went to the post, attacking his man with a quick fake-and-go, drawing the foul. It’s a move we had seen him use a lot during the preseason. After the video you see above, off-camera, I asked D-Mo specifically about that move.“You know where I learned that move? Watching Luis Scola five years ago.”“But yours is nothing like his, you do it much more quickly,” I replied.“You always have to make things better,” he said, with a wink.Terrence Jones actually got significant minutes, checking in when the game had not yet been decided. His absence so far had been the most puzzling. The rookie four-man had started most-to-all of the team’s games in the preseason and, with his play, seemed to at least have secured a spot for himself in the rotation.Tonight, he checked in and immediately attacked, throwing up two wild, horrifically awkward shots in the span of a minute; the nerves were certainly at play. Overall, he finished 1-6 for five points in his twelve minutes, but he brought a new element to the position which we hadn’t yet seen. He provided energy, blocking two shots and running the floor, and while he was not accurate, he put pressure on the opposing defense by spotting up and attacking the rim off the dribble. These were skills his counterparts at the position (Patterson, Morris) don’t have.Most fascinating though was the context of Jones’ insertion into the lineup, revealed during the postgame presser. When we asked about the decision, said Kelvin Sampson:
“One of the things I’m always on Patrick about, is he has to rebound better. At some point you have to earn the right to stay on the floor. We all have responsiblities…Last night I didnt think we defensive rebounded as well as we should. And, I wanted to see if Terrence could.”
In my four years covering the team, spanning from Rick Adelman until this point, I don’t think I recall a Rockets coach publicly criticize a player the way Sampson discussed Patterson. In fact, I was almost shocked when the words came out of his mouth.Overall, Sampson was extremely candid while taking our questions, making for easily the most insightful presser I’ve heard in some time (second to only the night Kevin McHale told us he had asked himself why he had taken the job.)Sampson revealed that the team tracks pick & roll defensive coverage during the game and instantaneously provides this information to the bench. He said that last night, at times, the Rockets were 90% on their side pick & roll coverages, 80% on their mid pick & roll coverages, and 75% defending the rim. I hadn’t heard before that the team used in-game data to provide for adjustments. Then again, we don’t know if it had even been given heed before.Sampson talked about Asik glowingly, but then added, in response to a question about his post-game, that the center seemed like a Russian gymnast on offense, never finishing a move on the same side of the basket as he had begun.Still, the big storyline last night was the switch of Jones for Patterson. Under McHale, we wouldn’t have seen it. That’s significant in projecting what happens going forward. Both men–even Sampson last night–have nothing but praise for Patterson’s intelligence in team coverage. The man simply does not make mistakes and that quality is held at a premium by coaches. But his weaknesses are evident: he’s not much of an offensive threat and perhaps more troubling, he’s a poor rebounder.Will Jones continue to be given minutes in these next few games? We hold McHale and his family in our prayers. What happens upon the coach’s return if Jones flourishes? Will Patterson be reinserted? I had been predicting since the summer that Patterson would lose his job by January at the earliest. Those wheels seem to now be in motion. The tricky part though, is that the impetus was a coaching change.