By: Rahat Huq
It's been striking witnessing the complete transformation of the Houston offense these past two games since Dwight Howard's return to the lineup. After Donatas Motiejunas' emergence as a legitimate post option during Howard's absence, the fear held by many, including myself, was that Kevin McHale would revert the former to his previous role as a bystander. So far, that has not been the case. Last night, even with Howard on the court, the Rockets looked to establish Motiejunas on nearly every possession in the early going, surely an astonishing sight for any observer of this team. D-Mo finished with 18 points on 7-13 shooting; Howard put in 24 and 16.
We talked extensively of the potential of the big man pairing in our latest podcast episode, but last night's game only reaffirmed my former beliefs. A budding Motiejunas is not simply a weapon - his emergence signals the total metamorphosis of this team from a year ago. Primarily a pick and roll team last season, Houston looked either to the blocks for their big men or to a Harden isolation on what seemed like every possession last night. As I noted on Twitter, there were several possessions where after looking around early in the shot clock for some other development, Houston simply opted to feed Motiejunas on the block and allow him to go to work. McHale and the team have developed extreme trust in this bailout option.
The ramifications are simple. For as much as has been made regarding the low efficiency of postups in today's NBA, they can serve as an anchor, allowing a team to rest while still getting a look at the basket. There were a shockingly high number of plays last night where James Harden simply walked the ball up and fed Motiejunas, pacing to the weak side to wait for the play to unfold. If that's what allows him to conserve his energy for sustained defensive effort and late game dominance, so be it.
The big question going forward for the 7 footer pairing is their effectiveness against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers. Despite the media lovefest surrounding the Warriors, I'm confident in Houston's chances against that team in a 7-game series. And the Grizzlies are terrifying but Motiejunas has fared well historically against Zach Randolph. The Thunder and Clippers are the two teams in the West who, in recent history, have tormented the Rockets, and against whom I think things will be very difficult. I've noted in the past, the disappointing thing last season in the team's losses to those teams was not just that they lost but that Dwight Howard was almost always rendered completely ineffective. I pegged that as an indictment upon Howard but several of you noted, accurately, the true problem was Terrence Jones.
As I've stated repeatedly since last year, it is not a surprise that Jones has his best games against bad teams. Bad teams are bad for a reason. Aside from having an inferior gameplan, their scouting sometimes leaves much to be desired. While the Thunder and Clippers dare Jones to shoot, bad teams close out at the three-point, perplexingly respecting his outside shot, allowing him to drive by. Inside, those two teams swarm Dwight Howard with active bodies, but have the benefit of the likes of a Serge Ibaka being able to recover quickly enough to snuff out anything from Jones near the rim. The result almost always has been a totally ineffective Jones and a neutralized Howard. Almost without fail, Kevin McHale last season closed out games without a power forward on the court, against good teams.
Will things be different now? For Houston to succeed, they absolutely must get something from the power forward position. Recall that similarly, while during a completely different, far kinder era, the Rockets could not get past Seattle until acquiring Charles Barkley to man the power forward position. Precedent to that trade, the Sonics zoned Olajuwon on the block, limiting his effectiveness. Can Motiejunas come close to that effect? For one, if he's posting, that already is drawing more attention than Jones ever did. If the second big doubles down, that leaves an open Dwight Howard - a scary proposition for the basket support. If they opt to defend one on one, even then, you'd have to like Howard's chances in his matchup from the weakside. It's less attention than he was drawing before.
Defensively, the pairing is stout. The big question, like with the Asik-Howard pairing, pertains to spacing. If Howard is posting, Motiejunas can kind of drift to the perimeter. He's not a good shooter, but he has range and has been hitting his threes of late (3/5 last night). But with Motiejunas posting? That remains to be seen. There was one possession in particular early last night that resulted in a very awkward looking Dwight Howard midrange jumpshot. The other results, at first glance, were promising.
The above was literally the first play of the game last night. Since I don't have time to break through every instance of the pair's time together on the floor, I want to take random samplings to assess various instances. Here, after Motiejunas posts, Beverley feeds him off the roll. After D-Mo sucks in three defenders, he finds Howard inside for a jump hook which he missed. You could argue that the Denver defender was able to rotate quickly enough to contest the Howard hook, something Thunder bigs would certainly also be capable of. On the other hand, had the pass not been errant, that is likely a dunk.
Look at this freeze:
Motiejunas has three defenders, Ariza is wide open at the 3-point line, and Dwight freaking Howard is wide the f*** open. Those are some pretty high percentage options.
I noticed also last night that James Harden seemed to have some spacious driving lanes to the hoop, despite the presence of the 7-footers. I want to look into that more closely next because that was a point of contention regarding the Asik-Howard pairing last season.
The Rockets have to find a way to make this work, just like they needed to with Asik and Howard last season. Having two dangerous 7-footers playing together is a difficult proposition for any team to defend, especially with the league MVP already on the perimeter.