By: Paul McGuire
I do not remember prime Hakeem.
Obviously, I have seen the YouTube clips and heard the stories. But I am too young to have watched Hakeem Olajuwon block John Starks, or defeat David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal as it happened. The Hakeem I first saw was in 1997, a step slower but invincible in the eyes of a young child. Yet while he teamed up with two other famous, but aging stars in Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler, the Rockets would come up short in that infamous series against the Utah Jazz.
Sixteen years have passed since Karl Malone bearhugged Drexler and ensured that John Stockton would be open for that horrible 3 pointer. Now things have changed. The Houston Rockets are a contending team again, but with an average age of under 26, are among the youngest of the teams contending for a title this season. And tonight, the Rockets will take on what was in a sense supposed to be an updated version of the 1997 Rockets, of old veterans and tough players banding together in one last hurrah of a season, but instead have been caught in a nightmare of a season from the very beginning.
Injuries on both sides of the court are going to be critical for tonight’s game. There have been no major updates on Lin, Harden, or Aaron Brooks at the time of this writing, as all three have suffered from leg injuries. None of them are particularly severe, and Harden in particular I believe should be probable. That said, the Rockets do have a game the next night against a much more dangerous opponent in San Antonio, which belies the possibility of having the injured players rest. Greg Smith said earlier this week that he intends to return from his knee sprain for tonight’s game, but that is unlikely to seriously affect the rotation.
Meanwhile, the aging Nets have been utterly derailed by injuries more than any other factor. Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Jason Terry, and Andre Kirilenko have all been out for multiple games now with supposedly “day-to-day” injuries, meaning that no one has any idea who will actually suit up for them tonight. Andray Blatche also sprained his ankle in Wednesday’s game against the Lakers, though it appears that he likely will play.
The Brooklyn Nets are 4-11. If the season ended today, they would have the 4th pick in the vaunted 2014 draft…only that pick would end up going to Atlanta, courtesy of the trade for Joe Johnson’s contract. And after 15 games, the arguments of “small sample size” begin to wear thin.
A huge amount of Brooklyn’s problems can be attributed to the aforementioned injuries, but the Nets currently just do not have a lot of talent. I watched Brooklyn’s game this past Tuesday against the Toronto Raptors, only to be completely flabbergasted as the Nets deployed a lineup of Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Alan Anderson, Blatche, and Mason Plumlee halfway through the second quarter. For all of the depth which the Nets were supposed to have, they currently only have three players with an above-average PER – Johnson, Blatche, and Plumlee. The Nets do not have reliable three-point shooting in a league where this has become steadily more important. They don’t have interior offense without Brook Lopez, they don’t have passing without Deron, and even their defense is not the same with Kevin Garnett having apparently aged 20 years.
It is difficult to tell just how good Brooklyn could be given their injury problems and Kidd’s problematic coaching. But assuming that the lineup which comes onto the floor of the Toyota Center is the same as the one which faced the Lakers and Raptors this past week, it’s not really about chemistry or Kidd. It’s just about the very simple fact that despite the ridiculous sums of money which Mikhail Prokhorov has paid for this Brooklyn team, the Nets do not have that much talent on the floor. And that is what determines games in the end.
Given my ramblings about Hakeem Olajuwon to start this preview, it should be noted that Paul Pierce is not looking much better than the Dream’s final stint with the Raptors. About the only thing Pierce has done at an above-average level is draw and hit foul shots. He’s shooting 38% from the field, 28% from long range, and has basically the same amount of turnovers and assists. In Brooklyn’s last game against the Lakers, Pierce had a disastrous turnover in the final two minutes of the game which created a Wesley Johnson breakaway dunk, put the Lakers up 94-92, and wrecked the momentum from a last ditch Brooklyn rally.
Game tip off at 7:00pm CST.