By: Paul McGuire
The Houston Rockets have won 38 games. And there have not been many of those wins where I switched off my TV happy with what I saw.
Today was different. In the best Houston Rockets victory since they shut down the San Antonio Spurs on Christmas, the Rockets just plain fought against the Oklahoma City Thunder. They really attacked the Thunder on defense, rebounded the ball, and came out with all the hustle and grit which we have missed from this team all season. And they stayed with the Thunder for most of the game before finally just locking their opponents down with a new lineup not seen all season.
If there's anything to feel sad about after this game, it is that it took Coach Bickerstaff this long to finally play K.J. McDaniels over Corey Brewer.
It did not happen at first. Brewer was the main backup guard for the first half, and well, played like Brewer has all season. He bricked open corner 3's, and while he was able to break out during fast break opportunities, Brewer just cannot do anything in a half-court set.
So Bickerstaff began using McDaniels in the second half, and it paid off. For such a young player, McDaniels surprised me with his defensive prowess. He did not have any highlight steals or blocks, but what he did have was sound defensive fundamentals and knowing where to go. The Rockets beat the Thunder down the stretch with a Beverley-Harden-Ariza-McDaniels-Capela lineup. While Ariza naturally had the job of guarding Durant, and forced him into two terrible three-point shots without needing a double team, McDaniels just hedged when Westbrook had the ball and brought a whole bunch of energy, chasing the loose man on the rotation or the ball.
Oh, and McDaniels had this layup, too. That was nice.
But as great as McDaniels was, that was not even the biggest example of young Rockets trumping old Rockets tonight. Dwight Howard has always stunk against the Thunder. Steven Adams has always frustrated him, and Dwight even took it out on Adams with a dumb foul early in the fourth where he shoved Adams to the ground ( and yes, Howard did actually shove him, though perhaps Adams embellished it a bit).
But that worked out just fine, because Capela was a lot better than Howard tonight. Howard tried to score in the post, only not to get a single point and finishing with 4 points on 2-6 shooting. Capela was content to play the roll man, and it worked. And on defense, it was the Clint Capela block party. Capela totally shut down the paint when he was in, and forced the Thunder into a jump-shooting team. And with McDaniels and Ariza patrolling the perimeter, even that option became limited.
McDaniels and Capela brought a much-needed dose of energy and athleticism to this team. That is crucial because the Rockets just do not have any athletes, whether it is the older Howard, Ariza, Beverley, or Motiejunas. Even Harden is fairly unathletic by superstar standards. He is very strong ( which is why that fourth quarter smallball lineup worked, as he could guard Adams just fine) and wily, but he is not a leaper like Westbrook or even the aging LeBron.
That lack of energy has made the Rockets look slow all season long, as they do not have the speed to make up for their constant missed defensive rotations. And tonight's energy cannot be solely attributed to those two. Even in the first half, the Rockets hustled hard and stayed in the game despite dismal shooting by grabbing all the offensive rebounds they could. There was one possession where Houston got seven shots before Howard finally dunked the ball home.
Maybe that energy was desperation of the playoffs slipping away, maybe it was the two young guns, maybe it was other factors as well. But it was there. Ben Dubose noted that Coach Bickerstaff talked about how right after Harden made a huge steal with 30 seconds left, he immediately noticed that Beverley had streaked down the court and launched the touchdown pass to him for a dunk that sealed the game.
The Rockets earlier this season may have been content for Harden to just dribble the ball and take a shot. But while there was certainly plenty of that down the stretch, the Rockets moved on defense and grabbed offensive rebounds. And that movement sealed this terrific win.
Now the Houston Rockets have five games left. The last four are against Phoenix, Minnesota, the Lakers, and the Kings. A cream puff schedule if they do their job and beat the teams they are supposed to.
But Wednesday's game against Dallas is the big one. If the Rockets win against Dallas, they're all but guaranteed to be playing in three weeks, and Dallas probably will not.