By: Rob Dover
The Charlotte Bobcats are one of the teams in the league with the most left to play for - to give their first visit to the playoffs in four years a chance of going well, they need to avoid the Pacers and the Heat in the first round and are pushing hard to catch up with Washington for the sixth seed. Earlier in the season such an opponent might have been a cause for concern, but the battle-hardening rigour of the NBA season has given the Rockets the necessary familiarity with winning to keep control of the game and come up with the comfortable win. They were put through their paces in a game that was never truly blown open, but they had their noses in front most of the way through and eventually opened up a gap at the end of the third quarter that they would not relinquish.
- This game felt in some ways like a good tune up for the playoffs. Perhaps not the same calibre of opponent as the Rockets will see come May, but a team that was well organised defensively and had obviously done a little bit of homework. On the first play of the game the Rockets tried to run one of their favourite sets - Harden posting up and then curling around a screen at the elbow from Howard. But unlike a lot of teams this year the Bobcats were ready and able to snuff it out. We'll doubtless see a lot more of that sort of thing in the seven game series to come.
- Parsons really struggled tonight, missing his first six shots. He hasn't been playing well for a while but it has been less important in past games because Beverley has been making his shots out of the gate. In the starting lineup, one of Beverley or Parsons has to be making their three point shots for the team to really click. Harden and Howard can do a lot individually and Jones will do his standard garbage man job, but having those shooters hitting really makes the difference between a hot start and a mediocre one. Hopefully Parsons can figure out what's ailing him and break out of his slump soon - he showed signs of it towards the end of the game when he hit two (VERY flat) threes to help keep the game out of the Bobcats' reach.
- I was glad to see Howard back in the lineup tonight. There might have been a temptation to leave him out one more game - what's the harm, right? But putting him back in meant that the two front-court tandems could get extended minutes working together. Both the Jones/Howard and Motiejunas/Asik pairings had some nice high-low passing moments tonight - perhaps a recent point of emphasis in training? Jones and Howard have been doing it for a while, but I was surprised and pleased to see Asik dropping the ball off to Motiejunas under the basket as well. The rotations were such that they were pretty much playing as pairs, perhaps with an eye towards formalising the playoff rotation. I like this strategy and hopefully it will bear fruit down the road.
- Late in the game we saw a few iso-ball possessions from Harden that worried me a little. The Bobcats were doing everything they could to keep the ball out of Harden's hands until late in the shot clock, and it seemed to break up the plays the Rockets were trying to run. Parsons would hold the ball for a while trying to get it James, and then James would look up at the shot-clock and decide it wasn't worth running a play. I would have liked to have seen a bit more off ball movement as a backup plan to give them a chance at an open shot. On this instance Harden made his isolation plays, but on another day the step-backs with a hand in his face may not be falling - we've seen it plenty of times in the past.
- Watching Big Al work in the post really is a treat. He's been getting rave reviews ever since the All-Star break and it's not hard to see why - there was a palpable sense of excitement from the Charlotte crowd whenever he caught the ball on the block, and more often than not that was justified. He palms the ball in one enormous hand before beginning his move, a starting position that he has made his own. And while his bag of tricks may not have all the balletic flair of a prime Luis Scola, there's a cunning and guile there that you can't help but appreciate as he somehow sneaks his way under his defender's arms yet again for a layup. Howard and Asik did a pretty decent job on him all things considered, but on balance he won the match-up pretty comfortably, posting 22 points (on 17 shots) and 11 boards and getting Howard in foul trouble.