By: Rahat Huq
It would be easy to write this win off as yet another against an underwhelming opponent. After all, these weren't the same San Antonio Spurs you watched on TV last June with both of the team's starting big men, and Manu Ginobili, held inactive. But such dismissal would be overlooking of a critical point, perhaps not impressive to the larger NBA, but significant to those who have observed the Rockets over the years: last season, this would have been a close game, as would have some of the team's other victories. They would have come out and sleepwalked through the first quarter, playing down to the competition. Upon mini Spurs runs, Houston would have tried to outscore the opponent, rather than ramping up the intensity on defense as they did throughout last night. Yes, the Houston Rockets may still have not proven to the world that they are among the league's core elite teams. But this complete transformation is real.
I've been routinely asking myself these past few days, what was the impetus for this sudden change? Cultural changes usually entail a slow metamorphosis, in the context of team sports. You see it happen over the course of entire seasons. I don't know if I remember a team coming back the next offseason and vaunting to the top of the defensive rankings. The most obvious factor is the replacement of Chandler Parsons with Trevor Ariza, with the latter content to exert his full efforts at the other end, whereas the former seemed--as we had been noting since his rookie season--to be saving himself for the offensive stats necessary for a big payday. There is of course the re-hiring of T.R. Dunn, a member of the Rick Adelman staff that oversaw a Rockets defense which regularly finished in the top 10 in defensive rankings. There is Dwight Howard's health, with the big man more removed from the back surgery that takes longer from which to recover than the time he took off. There is the time James Harden spent with Team USA, as its leader, under the tutelage of some of the best coaches in the sport, and the backlash and humiliation to which Harden has been subjected after poor efforts last season. And maybe there was a paradigm shift up top, whereby management ran the same algorithms that spat back the decree to shoot only 3's, and got back a coherent gameplan to suffocate opponents. Who knows which of the aforementioned was most significant, but it seems there was a perfect storm confluence of factors. The Rockets seem to have bought in that they will only win from their efforts defensively, and winning is the greatest of self-fulfilling affirmations. The more opponents they crush, the more guys like Harden will be convinced what they are doing is the way things have to be done.
Dwight Howard finished the night with 32 points and 16 rebounds, most of which came through three quarters. Predictably, he was the topic of conversation during the TNT halftime show, after posting 20 and 12 through the first 24 minutes of action. Shaq was pleased, saying such dominance should be nightly, whereas Barkley stuck to his line that Howard was not a skilled offensive player, taking time to ridicule a clip played earlier in the show of Kevin McHale teaching Howard the basic fundamentals of post set-up. Shaq seems to think that because Howard is bigger than everyone else, he should post numbers like he did during his career; Barkley said, as he has, that Howard "is just not the type of guy you can throw the ball down into." While I hate to say this, I have to sort of agree with Charles (though, with some qualifications).
First, a large quantity of Howard's points last night were off of lobs and other cleanup type opportunities. That's how the Rockets need Howard to play and when Howard is at his very best. But its not like he was killing the Spurs on the low block en route to his carnage. (Interestingly, I noticed more Howard/Harden pick&rolls last night than I can remember in two seasons. Not so interestingly, something good came out of almost all of these sorts of plays).
Second, Howard has improved tremendously. I mean leaps and bounds. Anyone who claims Howard hasn't improved his post play hasn't been watching Rockets games. He's doing off-handed running hooks, Hakeem spins, reverse pivots, everything. He's pulled out the entire Olajuwon repertoire, short of just the Dreamshake itself.
Third, the league has changed vastly since Barkley and Shaq's playing days, and that's the elephant in the room both of these greats have just either failed to even realize or simply refuse to acknowledge. With the new rules allowing zone schemes, you can't just dump the ball into a big man and allow him to mow his defender down in space. There's always help defenders waiting in annoying areas, taking away the pockets of space wherein which Hakeem himself would operate. But still, guys like Al Jefferson are able to do work within these constraints.
Fourth, as I've been discussing with several readers, even if it isn't optimal, the team has to keep feeding Howard in the post. At the least, it allows the team to rest so that they can save their energy on the defensive end.
The matter of Dwight's post play is too nuanced to just say that either "he sucks because he isn't scoring 28 a game" or "he sucks, period" as the studio guys have been doing. But to close, what I find most striking, is the almost inverted nature of his abilities. If you watch him closely, in concert with the McHale training clips, you realize that from his sessions with Olajuwon, Howard is approaching mastery at advanced technique. Not many guys in the league can do an off-hand jump hook or spin baseline. Paradoxically, where he struggles is with his body positioning before the catch. You can count numerous possessions where Howard receives the ball way too far from the basket and has to dribble in himself because he hadn't established positioning prior to the catch. His footwork before the move also leaves something to be desired.
I wonder why this is? One theory might be that he's top heavy. While Howard has the broadest shoulders in the league, he doesn't seem to have the lower body strength the eye would expect. He's able to bump guys out of the way when standing straight up, but can't mow them down while squatting. I don't know, but Dwight Howard would take his game to a whole new level if he could develop mastery of these basics. It' something I'll be keeping an eye on.