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Detroit Pistons 114, Houston Rockets 101: The slog is real

Good teams play bad games, and they play a lot of them in the doldrums of winter. Injuries stack up, fatigue sets in, and the grind gets to be a bit too grindy. One of the toughest elements of an NBA season is figuring out how to give enough effort through the slog, and how to keep from being buried under the grime. Tonight, the Houston Rockets slid into the muck in Detroit, and the Pistons took the initiative and the win. Even without Brandon Jennings, the Pistons simply played like the better team on another dreary January day.

The good news is that the All-Star break is right around the corner, and the slog doesn’t get much sloggier. The bad news is that the Rockets looked pretty bad, and have been slumping for a while. It may be time to shake up some rotations or to unleash the bench a bit, because things are getting ugly. Kostas Papanikolau, who had been nailed to the bench for weeks, came in and helped spark a late comeback. When the meat of your rotation is having bad games, which we’ll get to, it’s time to shake things up.

The question of who had the best night is a two-man race between James Harden and Donatas Motiejunas, with D-Mo’s play being a little more consistent on the evening, but Harden’s height of heroics standing a little taller. Harden bumped knees in the second quarter, leading to a nasty injury scare which turned out to be nothing more than a bruise, but kept his line low until the second half. He exploded after the break, however, ending with a team-high 26 points on 10-17 shooting, 7 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals and a block. The fact that he got there without having a particularly standout game is impressive by itself, and his assists illustrate how big he was as the primary creator tonight. The Rockets rallied from down 21 to within 4, but without enough help, it was a Pyrrhic victory.

Motiejunas, for his part, shot an astounding 10-13, and could not be stopped on his way to 21 points. Well, Donatas could only be stopped by fouls, of which he picked up 5, limiting him to 29 minutes when it felt like he should have played a lot more. His 4 assists and 3 rebounds weren’t anything to write home about, but he was effectively automatic all night long on a night when nothing was easy for Houston. He’s growing into a key player for this team, and making that third-year leap that young players often do. If he can continue this into the playoffs, the Rockets might have a chance of making some noise.

The Pistons’ crowd made a different noise, however, as boos rained down onto Josh Smith. This was his first game back in Detroit since he was waived, and the Palace at Auburn Hills bore no goodwill for J Smoove. His game didn’t exactly shut them up, either. He had a few solid passes and took the ball to the rack a couple times, but ended up 3-11 with 7 points, and 7 rebounds to go along with it. The Rockets were getting smashed on the glass all night, and he was one of the few players in red who were hanging around to grab a board or two.

Apart from Corey Brewer’s 3-5 shooting for 10 points, the rest of the Rockets looked as though they were on the second night of back to back road games halfway across the country. Losing Dwight Howard has been a big blow to the defense in particular, but having to make up those extra minutes has hurt the offense as well, and it showed in the sub-par three point shooting. Ariza’s 3-7 wasn’t bad, nor were the 1/2 and 2/4  lines Papanikolaou, Motiejunas, Harden and Brewer had on the night. The rest of the team, however, went 2-13, bringing the team to a very mediocre 34.4%. It was a struggle all night on the offensive end, and the huge size of the Pistons was a problem coming out of the gate.

There was, uh, something of a foul disparity as well, but there’s not a lot to say about that. The whistle favored the Pistons all night long, and the only things to be done would be to change the gameplan or work the refs. McHale did a bit of the former and very little of the latter. Frustrating officiating is going to happen from time to time, and that’s not going to change.

On a very forgettable night in January, the Rockets played a very forgettable game of basketball. The All-Star Break is right around the corner, and with it, sweet precious rest. Games will start to mean something again as the race for the playoffs closes in and players get healthy. In the meantime, the Rockets have to trudge through the sludge and not get bogged down the slog.

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Josh Smith’s return to Detroit