Initially, a preliminary matter. After the Houston Rockets thoroughly disposed of the defending champion Spurs, the game was largely considered a throwaway, and not a validation of the Rockets’ abilities. After all, the Spurs had rested starting big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, and super-sub Manu Ginobili; they had waived the white flag before tipoff had even happened, the story went. Predictably, that similar rationale isn’t being applied to last night in a game that saw Houston go to war without 3/5 of its starting lineup. A quick perusal of my timeline, and some headlines, unearthed the type of slobbering over the Warriors that I had expected. Forget that it took Golden State all of 45 minutes to separate from this severely undermanned Rockets bunch – the media darling Warriors are the league’s best team. At the very most, there are mentions of Howard’s absence, but certainly nothing of both Beverley and Jones being gone too, and certainly nothing approaching “throwaway” status similar to Thursday night’s dismissals of Houston’s win in similar situations. That’s fine. People already loved the Warriors anyway and they just needed affirmation for their prior beliefs. It’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But it’s interesting to note how funny a thing narrative can be, at the national level.
For as well as Houston has played this season, last night was the most impressed I’ve been by the Rockets all season. It wasn’t pretty, but my God, did they ever fight. They went into a game in which they had no business being close, and held the lead for much of the duration, staying close until late in the fourth. They had no rim protection to speak of and were starting, essentially, three rookies, with a forty-year-old coming off the bench. They fought the Warriors until they just had nothing left in them, notching their first loss of the year. Had Dwight Howard been present to gobble up the rebounds that, particularly in one stretch during the third, got away, this could have been a blowout in the Red direction. Oh, I’m sorry, excuse me, I can’t say that for sure: Golden State just played down to their competition and would have tried harder had Howard suited up.
The box score was ugly, with Houston determined to break the league record in three-point attempts. That was their only hope, really, in a game like this. Kostas Big Papa P was particularly egregious, at points being left all alone by Warriors defenders. Papa started at the ‘4’, a home in the lineup I predicted just nights ago, but rather to close games, not start them. Even with Terrence Jones available, barring a major trade, Papa will be the power forward in the team’s fourth quarter units, by some point in the season: he’s just far smarter and more reliable than the former, and you can tell Kevin McHale is already in love with him. But he must start knocking down his shots. If defenses aren’t respecting him on the perimeter, he won’t get an opportunity for the drives that have allowed him to set up his teammates so beautifully. That being said, did you ever in your wildest dreams see Papa being this good, this fast? I didn’t.
(As a side observation, what is it with left handed shooters having no arc on their shot? Both Motiejunas and Papa K have little to no arc on their line-drive threeballs, making for a very difficult attempt).
Donatas Motiejunas showed up in a big way last night, tallying 16 points and 8 boards, and knocking down two huge triples when the Rockets really needed them. I see everyone crapping all over Motiejunas, and it makes me wonder if people are watching the games. Sure, he’s been horrible offensively, before last night. But given that he’s been that bad on offense, do you really think the guy would still be in the rotation, unless there was something else he was doing that McHale was appreciative of? From my vantage point, Motiejunas has played absolutely superb defense this season, something which has carried over from last year. Next game, watch Motiejunas closely on defense. He almost never misses a rotation, always sliding his feet quickly to put himself in front of a driving guard. This shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s few things coaches hate more–and which fans understand less–than the inabilities of young big men to play help defense. It’s why Stromile Swift rode the pine for all of his lone year in Houston, despite clamoring from fans that he play, due to the eye test. Stop just looking at rebounds and blocks as wholly representative of defense. To be sure, if Motiejunas keeps shooting 20% from the field, he’s not going to be on this team much longer. No matter how good a defender you are, you can’t be an absolute zero on offense; even Bruce Bowen had to develop a reliable corner ‘3’. And Motiejunas, while good, certainly isn’t elite. But can we please just stop acting like the guy is complete trash? I’m seeing tweets in my timeline saying things like he’s the worst player in the entire NBA. I don’t get that at all.
Last of all, Isaiah Canaan. I am very serious about what I am about to say: Isaiah Canaan is this team’s future at starting point guard and I’ll raise that even one further and say that from what I’ve seen in these past seven games, I no longer want to acquire Rajon Rondo. Part of that has to do with Canaan himself, part of it doesn’t. Canaan finished with 21, outplaying Steph Curry through early parts of the game, fearlessly carrying the team on his back in what was, for all intents and purposes, like one of the first games of his professional career. I know there are those who will read this as a knee-jerk, or dismiss it as hyperbole, but I’m dead serious: this guy is the future at point guard for this team. I’ve seen enough already now to determine that. He’s a rookie basically, playing in his seventh game, and is already exhibiting all of the skills you want in a point guard next to James Harden. It was his seventh game! (I don’t count last year). He can do everything, basically. He can get to the rim at will, he finds teammates at impossible angles, and can even shoot threes off of his own dribble. There was one play in particular where he stared his man down and walked into a 20+ foot bomb, Tracy McGrady style. The guy is absolutely fearless, and his passing in particular has been eye-opening. Aaron Brooks is a good comparison, but Brooks was never this good of a passer. (Brooks struggled mightily with interior passing). While Canaan only notched 1 assist in the box score, there were countless times last night where he was able to dribble into the teeth of the defense and kick out to a teammate on the perimeter. Most encouraging of all, Canaan’s defense seems to have come a long way from last season, an area where he will have to prove to at least be adequate to be considered the savior at the position.
If Danny Ainge called tomorrow and said “I’ll give you Rondo for the Pelicans pick and Big Papa,” I would say “no thanks” and hang up. I was already leaning heavily in that direction before last night, but last night cemented it. Why? Because a big part of why I wanted Rondo, if you recall from our summer podcasts, was because I thought this team needed accountability, a new leader, and a cultural change. They don’t need that anymore. They changed their culture, seemingly overnight, and Harden is the unequivocal leader. They don’t need anything that could upset the dynamics and hierarchy of this team. Changing point guards constitutes a paradigm shift in a team’s construction, particularly in the case of an individual as strong-headed as Rajon Rondo. It’s not something this Houston team any longer needs or should be flirting with. It is true, yes, that Rondo could spoon-feed Dwight Howard far more easier baskets than he is currently getting. But I do not think that is enough to merit the risk of turmoil, seeing how good this Houston team has already become.
Having said all of that, I feel this team still needs an upgrade at power forward. Adding someone like a Paul Millsap doesn’t change team dynamics, unlike Rondo, because he just represents an upgrade, not a shift in hierarchy or philosophy. If you get someone like Millsap, you just plug him in to do exactly what you are asking of Terrence Jones, but to have him do it better. With Rondo, you are changing the chemical balance of your team. Remember in high school, or maybe junior high, when they’d teach you about the difference between a physical change and a chemical change, and a physical change was just something where you cut a piece of paper, and the paper is just different in form, but it is still the same thing, whereas with a chemical change, you get an entirely new substance? That’s the distinction between trading for a new power forward and trading for a new point guard. I can’t believe that was the analogy I just used, but there you have it. The Houston Rockets are not in need of a chemical change.