Rockets 101, Bucks 98 (OT)
It was yet another ugly win for the Houston Rockets. The Rockets again got off to a rocky start, trailing 21-27 after 9 minutes. The starters generally executed the offense well in these opening minutes, but the defense struggled. Scola, in particular, had difficulty staying in front of Mbah a Moute on his drives from the corner and contesting his outside shot. On offense, Scola scored effectively in the post against Bogut.
For our “Ariza Watch” in the 1st quarter, I observed some good and bad. At 10:30, Ariza got himself wide open on a cut to the basket, but Shane Battier missed him and elected to dump it down to Scola instead (who also missed Ariza open at the basket). Scola ended up scoring in the post, but those are the type of opportunities the Rockets should take advantage of. Shane could have given Ariza an easy scoring opportunity with a lob. At 9:50, Ariza faked the 3-point shot and drove past his defender, hitting Battier in the corner. The shot was missed, but it was a well-executed play.
At 7:10, Ariza received the ball against Charlie Bell from Luis Scola. Having 5 inches on his opponent, this is a matchup Ariza should (in theory) take advantage of. But I sensed right away that it was a poor play, knowing full well that Ariza is a weak finisher when contested and has absolutely no touch around the basket unless its a point-blank dunk/layup. As it turned out, he never even got the shot off — he turned and fumbled the ball away. At 4:20, Ariza was tested defensively for the first time. Bell executed a V-cut on the baseline, cutting back to the corner to get the ball from Jennings. In these situations, Ariza likes to cheat over the screener and intercept the pass instead of following his man back to the 3-point line. In this instance, Ariza just missed getting a hand on the ball, leaving Bell with a wide open look in the corner which he missed. Is this the type of defense the Rockets want him to play? At 2:55, Ariza made a sloppy pass to a cutting Hayes that was intercepted. He fouled Warrick hard in transition, in apparent frustration.
Lowry and Landry checked into the game with about two and a half minutes remaining in the first. Landry has gotten the publicity as a 6th-man of the year candidate (a topic I wrote about last month), but Lowry may rightly be considered the true Rockets energizer off the bench. He entered the game with the Rockets trailing by 6 points, but the Rockets outscored the Bucks by 13 through the rest of the first half. To end the first quarter, Lowry freed up Brooks with a great screen in the corner, found Hayes cutting underneath for the layup, got a defensive rebound and passed ahead to Ariza for a transition layup, and he drew an offensive foul by strategically careening off Bogut. He continued his all-out activity into the 2nd quarter. First possession, he found Budinger in the corner for a three, and then swooped in for the offensive rebound and found Landry under the basket. At 9:00, he drove past Meeks for an and-1. At 8:28, after Thomas blocked Landry’s shot and recovered the ball, Lowry snuck in and stole the ball away, and later in the possession got a put-back score off a Brooks miss. At 7:55, Lowry again stole away a rebound from Thomas and Warrick. At 6:20, Kyle pushed the ball up the floor and found Andersen for a 3-point make in transition. At 4:30, Lowry hit a trailing Budinger for a 3-point make in transition. At 4:05, Lowry drew a foul in transition, getting to the line.
Landry’s first half was decidedly less effective, with the Bucks putting Kurt Thomas, a superior post defender, on him. Thomas, much like Hayes, takes full advantage of his strong base and quick hands when defending the post. At 10:30, Thomas used a fronting defense to deny the ball to Landry (the Rockets score anyway off a well-executed basket cut from Budinger and well-timed pass from Andersen). At 9:40, Landry turned to face Thomas in the post but had to force up a bad shot after Thomas got his hand on the ball on the way up. And at 8:28, Landry got his shot blocked against Thomas in the post. Defensively, he made a few mistakes as well. At 10:20, he failed to box out Kurt Thomas, who scored on a put back. At 9:05, he was late on a rotation as Jennings blew past lead-footed David Andersen for the layup. Landry contests shots and moves his feet well enough. He has little presence as a defensive rebounder, and is too often unalert in help defense. The encouraging thing is that he has fully acknowledged this and clearly wants to improve. Its a work in progress.
As was recently discussed, the Rockets have struggled at the start of second halves, particularly since the beginning of December. In this third quarter, Scola again scored consistently while guarded by Bogut or Mbah a Moute. Ariza again provided a mixture of good and frustrating plays. This time, I’ll start with the bad. At 9:50, he turned it over while running a pick and roll with Scola. At 4:03, he made a hustle player chasing down a loose ball at half-court, but instead of picking it up and finding his teammates in transition, he dived onto the ball and called a timeout. Unnecessary. At 2:15, Ariza fell asleep against Delfino, allowing him to score off a baseline cut while he watched the ball. At 1:45, he drove into the paint and air-balled a 6-foot shot taken over Bogut. At 1:10, Ariza missed a 3-pointer and failed to promptly get back in defense, allowing Delfino to take and make a wide open transition 3-pointer. The good: he drained a passively contested 3-pointer over Delfino at 9:01 from the corner. At 6:08, he triggered a steal on one end and found Scola in transition. At 3:55, he drove into the defense against their zone and found Scola in the lane. Good pass, but Scola wasn’t able to finish.
Lowry and Landry entered the game with three and a half minutes to go in the third quarter, but this time the Rockets finished the quarter getting outscored 2-5. On back to back possessions, Lowry’s pass to Scola was contested by Bogut, and Lowry’s shot off a drive was contested by Bogut. He had a big defensive impact on this game. The Rockets finally scored on their last possession of the quarter, as Lowry drove and found Scola for an 18-foot jump shot which he nailed.
At the start of the 4th quarter, the Rockets were up 6 points — 79-73. They started the quarter with a lineup of Lowry, Ariza, Budinger, Landry, and Scola, while the Bucks used Ridnour, Bell, Delfino, Mbah a Moute, and Bogut. The Bucks used a zone defense throughout this quarter, forcing the Rockets into stand-still offensive sets and numerous 3-point misses. Through the first 6 minutes, the Rockets were only 1 for 9 from the field. The Rockets have been most successful in the fourth quarter with Landry becoming the offensive focus. Landry was quiet through most of the 4th quarter, but at 5:00 he had one of the more spectacular finishes of the season, doing a 180 in the air, flipping the ball over his head, and scoring while drawing the foul. At 3:24, he got himself to the foul line off a quick spin move against Bogut. In the end, the Rockets were outscored in the quarter 19-12, and the game went to overtime.
In the overtime session, Landry went to work. At 4:30 in OT, he scored while facing up against Bogut on the right block. At 4:00, he scored and drew a foul while posting up on the left block (against Bogut). At 3:44, he blocked a shot by Jennings. These 3 plays in the first minute and a half of OT helped put the Rockets up 5 points. Scola scored the next two baskets for the Rockets — an 18-footer off a pass from Brooks, and a paint score from a deflected Ariza pass he picked up . The Rockets retained a comfortable lead until their closing offensive possession, before which a putback by Bogut closed the gap to two points. Brooks, in a familiar position for him, hit only 1 out of 2 free throws. Brooks is a good free throw shooter, but like many younger players does not yet seem comfortable in converting from the line in crunch time situations. On the Bucks final possession, down three, they executed their play perfectly. Jennings drove and found Ridnour in the opposite corner for the wide open 3-point look (his defender, Lowry, got screened out of the play). It was the best shot the Bucks could have hoped for in that situation, but they missed it. The Rockets won, barely avoiding a second overtime.
Is this a playoff team in the Western Conference? The Rockets GM tweeted after this game that the Rockets are not a playoff team without change. That a sense of urgency is needed to build up and sustain bigger leads. The Rockets have lost 6 of 7 of their previous road games (the lone win occuring against the hapless New Jersey Nets). It is true that they have won 9 over their previous 10 home games, with many more to come this month, but needing overtime to defeat the Minnesota T-Wolves and Milwauke Bucks does not inspire confidence.