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Dallas Mavericks 112, Houston Rockets 108 – Playoff Intensity

The Houston Rockets headed to Dallas to try to follow up Sunday’s rout with a second win against the Mavericks this season. Dallas had won the first two, and Houston was desperate to avoid losing the season series. The Mavs were desperate to get a win, especially against a team that had just blown them out, and especially with their hopes at hitting .500 this season looking wan. In a game full of intensity from both teams, the Mavs simply took their game to the next level. When people say that a regular season game has playoff intensity, this is the kind of game they mean. When a whole season seems to be on the line, a team has to find a way to elevate their play. The Mavs, 2011 NBA champions, know how to play at playoff intensity. The Rockets? A work in progress.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt the Mavericks’ cause that Houston’s minutes rotation continues to be in flux. Omer Asik, defensive stalwart and team pillar, played only 23 minutes, ceding the fourth quarter to new Rocket Thomas Robinson. Donatas Motiejunas, owner of a couple good games since becoming a starter, only played 16 minutes. Patrick Beverley yet again supplanted Lin in the fourth, and Francisco Garcia got a noteworthy 22 minutes on floor time. This isn’t to say that the Rockets are worse than before the trade (indeed, there are some good arguments for the opposite being true), or that this chaos gave the Mavs the win (again, the guys getting the minutes were playing well), but that the Mavericks looked in command. They had stability, veteran expertise and cohesion, putting them in a comfort zone that the Rockets won’t have probably the rest of this season.

James Harden, for his 28 points (game high) on 17 shots, 16-16 free throws and 9 assists (only 2 turnovers!)  had a team-worst plus/minus of -13. While his free throws were good, his 5-17 shooting and 2-7 from three strongly resemble the kind of lines he has when the Rockets lose. Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and the rest of the Mavs were locked in on Harden all night. While their aggressive denial at the rim resulted in him shooting quite a few free throws as the night progressed (Houston had 33 attempts to Dallas’ 14), it also resulted in quite a few empty throughout the game. Harden still doesn’t look at 100%, and indeed took a nasty spill at one point, writhing for a few heart-stopping moments before shaking it off. He’s not at his best right now, but looks like he’s getting closer.

Donatas Motiejunas’ -12 gave Harden’s -13 a run for its money. In fact, the reality that Motiejunas managed this in a mere 16 minutes is telling of why he only got 16 minutes. Despite shooting a great 7/8 from the field and hustling on offense, he shot 0-4 from deep, looked lost on defense at times and capped it off with a flashy pass in transition to an area near Omer Asik. The area failed to catch the pass and Motiejunas sat after that turnover. While initially disappointing, in fact this single rebound, 7 point effort isn’t a red flag. As a rookie, he’s simply going to have nights where things don’t click, and that’s okay. He’s working on his entire game, and making decent progress.

Francisco Garcia, on the other hand, has little left in the way of player development. Garcia got a massive 22 minutes, especially considering his merely passable play. He his only one of his four three point attempts, and went two for six overall. His two boards and two assists weren’t bad, and he seems like a serviceable backup scorer when he settles into the system. The question, however, is how much he and Delfino can coexist. Delfino’s line (11 points, 4-9 shooting, 3-7 threes, 6 rebounds on 28 minutes) was the same sort of line you can get from Garcia, and neither has good enough defense for that aspect of their game to matter. It may be nice to have another shooting wing with a bit of height, but as minutes tighten up, it won’t be surprising to see these two players fighting for the same time.

Omer Asik looked good out there, grabbing 15 boards and 12 points in a mere 23 minutes. The only downside for him was that he was the only Rocket to miss free throws, and he missed a lot of them. He went 4-11 from the line, and those 7 missed points would not have gone unwelcome at the end of a close game. In a March game, that can be overlooked, but turning into a player who can be strategically fouled in the playoffs is something he absolutely has to avoid.

Thomas Robinson, beneficiary of late minutes at center, did a good job of convincing the world of his value. After a couple lackluster games, Robinson has begun to come alive, answering how he can be valuable to Houston. He’s incredibly athletic and long enough to make some crucial late game blocks (which… oh my goodness, he sure did). If he can learn some defense, and improve on his ability to finish around the rim, he could be another cornerstone big for Houston. He’s young enough that his ceiling is still unknown, but his willingness, motor and physical gifts are at this point obvious. Even if he doesn’t pan out, he’s showing why it makes sense to take a gamble on him.

Jeremy Lin had a passable night, and was supplanted by Beverley late once again. 12 points on 10 shots is fine, 3 turnovers aren’t horrible, and 3 assists are low, but not awful for 15 minutes of play. Lin seems to be settling into a pattern of decency if not greatness, and it’s letting players like Pat Beverley chances to wow head coach Kevin Mchale and close out games. Beverley, for his part, did the wowing with his 7 assists (compared to 2 turnovers), but went scoreless on two shots. Beverley’s hustle and defense counted for a lot with the coaching staff, and he stuck around for a late rally that almost took the game for Houston.

Chandler Parsons was around for the whole thing, though, only sitting for 5 minutes. He’s playing increasingly large loads, and seems to be a cornerstone for McHale’s team. His line was no Larry Bird type effort like last time, but 23 points on 8-15 shooting, including 5-8 from three is nothing to sneeze at. his 4 rebounds, a block and only one turnover simply add to a very pleasing line for Parsons. His defense of Dirk was certainly better than Delfino’s, and Parsons seems to be gaining confidence in his overall game.

Greg Smith, a player who looked ready to become a rotation staple, didn’t appear at all, nor did new and old Rocket Aaron Brooks. He can be expected to get some minutes here or there eventually, but don’t expect to see a Rocket in #0 very soon. Hopefully Robinson (now #41) won’t regret giving up his number.

In a game that seemed to go back and forth all night, the Mavs in fact led for the majority of it, by as much as 13 at one point. They were the beneficiaries of a few (correct) review calls, and looked like the smarter, more savvy team with the exception of a silly technical foul on Dirk Nowitzki. Notably, Jeremy Lin had a buzzer-beater at the half waved off in a very difficult call, and the Rockets nearly had possession again with 6 seconds left, if not for a review by the refs (which looked like right call, for those wondering.) One of these teams looks headed for the playoffs and the other doesn’t. But the Mavs looked like the playoff team tonight, leaving it all on the court to get an emotional win. Houston needs some playoff experience, so they can try to learn how to ramp it up, too.

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