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Exploring the margins of a contender

We already know about Dwight Howard’s post-game, James Harden having the Western Conference Player of the Week trophy unofficially named in his honor, Chandler Parsons’ hair, and an envied three-pointers/free-throws/dunks or GTFO offensive philosophy.

Patrick Beverley’s un-muzzled feistiness; Terrence Jones flashing his tip of the iceberg potential and doing just about everything a human can possibly do above the rim; and Jeremy Lin’s consistently inconsistent play.

These are all are narratives that have endured throughout this season, and will surely resurface here and there over the next month or two. But now that nearly everyone is healthy (sorry, Greg Smith), and the Houston Rockets are accredited title contenders, what else is there to explore with this team?

They quickly debunked the theory that beating a fatigued Miami Heat team at home didn’t mean too much by stomping all over the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers before an uninspiring loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night.

The Rockets are one of only four teams in the league with an offense (5th) and defense (9th) that resides in the top 10. Kevin McHale knows the rotation, and from here on out no drastic changes are necessary. This team has found and accepted its “identity.”

What about all we don’t know? For the sake of argument, nothing Howard, Harden, Parsons, Lin, Beverley, or Jones do in the playoffs should surprise anybody who’s watched them all year—good or bad. We know their strengths and weaknesses, what they’re capable of doing and not doing. We know tendencies and preferences. These are arguably the team’s six best players, and if any two or three craps it up in the first-round, Houston’s season could end with a disappointing thud.

Here’s a look at three relatively unpredictable contributors who could have a big impact in the playoffs, or make no noise at all.

Omer Asik

One year ago, Omer Asik was arguably Houston’s most consistent player. As one-dimensional as he is large, Asik manufactured a defensive campaign that should have received more recognition by those who vote for Defensive Player of the Year. He grabbed more rebounds than everybody in the league. (Everybody!)

Then Dwight Howard came to town, and Asik’s great season was immediately swept under the rug. The hurt feelings that spawned have basically sabotaged Asik’s second year in Houston. After McHale brushed his teeth with the idea of playing his two centers at the same time—ultimately deciding it just wasn’t a viable unit—Asik demanded a trade, essentially held his team for ransom by missing a few games he was healthy enough to play in, then sat out months with a somewhat mysterious thigh bruise.

Now he’s back at what appears to be 100%. What are the questions to ask here? Well, the most important one, in this writer’s opinion, is: Should McHale revisit Howard/Asik lineups?

Since the All-Star break, Asik and Howard have shared the court in three games for a grand total of nine minutes. The numbers don’t tell a pretty story, but what do they actually know in such a small sample? McHale last deployed the two giants against Portland’s Robin Lopez/LaMarcus Aldridge tandem, and they fared reasonably well.

Jones is a very good player who may be on his way to special things, but in this year’s playoffs it’s problematic in a seven-game series for him to guard Aldridge, Blake Griffin, David Lee, Zach Randolph, Dirk Nowitzki, or Boris Diaw (yes, that Boris Diaw) in the post.

Something tells me Houston will need that Asik/Howard tandem to work at some point. But for now, maybe Asik should focus on dunking the ball?

Let’s play a game. Look at the pictures below, and try to guess whether Asik made the dunk or missed it.

Give up? He missed both. Asik will never be a reliable option in the post, but right now he’s shooting just 47.7 percent from the floor. Since basically all his attempts come within a yard stick of the basket, this is embarrassing. At least he’s (sort of) making his free-throws.

Where Asik will most likely help is as a backup center. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe pointed out earlier this week, should Howard run into foul trouble, having the option of putting Asik in the game is downright luxurious. It’s like forgetting to pack a lunch on the same day your boss orders pizza for the office.

Forget about all the hissy fits and temper tantrums, Houston’s defense operates at a top-three level with Asik on the court. He’s still that paint-clogging guardian of the rim, just in a limited dosage. Opponents shoot 42.6% at the rim when he’s the closest defender (a figure nearly as good as Roy Hibbert).

There are millions of things I can’t answer about why Asik acted out this season (it couldn’t still be discomfort from knowing his team’s decision-makers were interested in signing the best center of this generation instead of playing him—the offensive mess he is—30 minutes every night, could it?), but had he approached things differently, we might be talking about a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

Donatas Motiejunas

Donatas Motiejunas is such an interesting basketball player. He’s tall, young, coordinated, and (sometimes) smooth. He’s fast enough to blow by lumbering bigs, and long enough to give ball-handlers and big men a headache.

But he’s yet to put these skills together. Recently, McHale has played Motiejunas at power forward beside Asik. It’s a tandem that should work, but struggles offensively (defensively they’ve been great).

Motiejunas will often be the roll man in these units, and even though he has deft foot work and a soft touch, he still rushes on the catch, either forcing a shot up or hastily shuffling a pass to nowhere.

On defense we’ve seen legitimate improvement from Day 1, and he’s much better on the boards from last season. But where he’s most intriguing as an effective weapon is when Houston chooses to full-court press. As soon as Houston makes a basket, Motiejunas will turn his back to the in-bounder and prevent any pass from coming into the closest opponent.

This may not look like much, but it makes the other team feel jumpy and disjointed. Watch this clip.

It takes Portland nearly seven seconds to get the ball over half-court, and by the time they go to a pick-and-roll with Batum, there’s only 10 seconds to go. (Batum eventually turns it over.)

Houston doesn’t need Motiejunas to reach his full potential tomorrow, but if the spurts turn into a slow trickle, this team will be a matchup nightmare come the playoffs.

Jordan Hamilton

When Patrick Beverley fouled out with three minutes to go in Houston’s recent overtime win over the Portland Trail Blazers, McHale replaced him with Jordan Hamilton.

The Trail Blazers weren’t small at the time. They had a traditional Mo Williams-Batum-Wesley Matthews-Aldridge-Lopez unit on the court. Harden, Howard, Parsons, and Lin were on for Houston. Jones, Motiejunas, and Asik weren’t “in the flow” of that particular game, each of them having been on the bench for about a quarter straight.

Was it a trust thing? Did McHale want to keep as many shooters/ball-handlers on the floor as possible? Rational aside, the Rockets outscored Portland by eight points once Hamilton took the floor. McHale’s decision may have been a surprise, but the results were not.

Hamilton is already comfortable on both ends of the floor, and is being used in myriad unexpected ways. He’s proven to be more dangerous than a typical spot up shooter, so the Rockets are running him off screens, feeding him on the move, and letting him make reads on the defense. Here are two subsequent examples from the most recent Thunder game. Hamilton comes off a pin down screen and catches a pass with his momentum carrying him into the paint. He’s aggressive, and gets to the foul line in both.

Over half his field goal attempts have come behind the three-point line, where he’s now shooting a cold 31%. But the sample size is small, and, thankfully, it hasn’t caused any hesitation in his release—especially in transition, where he’s shooting 42.9% on threes.

Hamilton’s been better than advertised on defense, though I noted he’d be an upgrade on the perimeter when Houston traded for him. In 160 minutes, the Rockets have allowed 98.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. Only the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers are better.

It’s one tiny blip, but here he is stifling Batum on a pretty big possession.

The word “revelation” is probably a bit strong, but Hamilton has exceeded all expectations since Houston traded for him.

None of these three guys are breaking scoreboards with gaudy statistics. None of them will play heavy minutes in the playoffs (and one may even be squeezed from the rotation—Motiejunas and Hamilton were benched for the second half in Oklahoma City in favor of Francisco Garcia), but each has the potential to turn a game. Each can make a huge play, give Houston an unquantifiable emotional lift, and contribute to a championship.

The talent is there, and each of these guys seems to understand the role they’ve been given. Each one will need to be filled if Houston wants to win its last game before summer vacation.

Michael Pina regularly contributes for Red94 and CelticsHub (ESPN’s TrueHoop Network), Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and The Classical. His writing can be found here. Follow him @MichaelVPina.

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