By: Rahat Huq
After Donatas Motiejunas began to emerge early this season, many wondered how he and Dwight Howard would fit together manning the Houston frontline. Would the same spacing issues that plagued the Asik-Howard duo manifest themselves yet again? I began examining the impact the players had upon defenses when playing together, concluding that each man's unique abilities could create interesting opportunities for the Houston offense. Then Josh Smith happened, Motiejunas went to the bench, and Houston plummeted. D-Mo has since been reinserted into the lineup, and Houston is thriving, causing me to wonder this weekend if Smith would again be given the starting role. Subsequently, sources close to the team informed me that, contrary to an initial report, upon which I had based my premise, no starting job promise was made to Smith in the team's negotiations with the forward. With the team playing well again, one can probably rest assured knowing that this current lineup will likely stay intact.
Last night, there was an interesting exchange that seemed promising, but gave rise to some concerns. Let's take a look.
Harden drives off the Motiejunas pick, Motiejunas catches and lobs to Howard who is unable to handle the pass. Ariza eventually scores off the layup, but in most instances, that's probably a Howard slam. Let's look closer.
After Harden comes around the pick, he has occupied the attention of two defenders. Motiejunas is free to roll into open space. If this were Asik, last year, instead of Motiejunas, because the former is incapable of the one-bounce dribble drive, the options would be far more limited.
After D-Mo takes one dribble, his man cuts him off. Plumlee also seeps over to cut off the lane as an extra line of defense. Motiejunas throws the errant pass, causing Howard to reach back. The Rockets eventually score, but not as an intended consequence of that play.
You can look at this sequence one of two ways. On the one hand, Howard probably catches that pass if he's healthy. On the other hand, you could say Plumlee played that possession about as perfectly as possible. He's leaked over enough to deter Motiejunas, but not so much to where Howard is left alone completely undeterred. What happens if that's Serge Ibaka?
How the two Rockets big men interact will most likely determine this season. Harden will be Harden, and Ariza and Beverley will be constants with limited variance. But Houston must learn to play off of and take advantage of its two big men to go far, and its two big men must learn to play off of each other. Asik and Howard, despite their defensive dominance, never figured things out, and that's why Asik is gone and why the Rockets went home early last summer. But Motiejunas is far more talented than his Turkish predecessor, and should do better taking advantage of the attention Dwight Howard draws on a constant basis.
I'm going to be watching the Thunder game closely, as should you if you care about this team. How will Serge Ibaka react when Dwight Howard has the ball? Last season, Ibaka was able to sag off of Terrence Jones, disrupting Howard in the post. Will he be able to give that much attention this time around? In the alternate, if Motiejunas is the playmaker, can Adams handle Howard alone on the weakside?