Houston Rockets 101, Chicago Bulls 90: So that’s what a bench does

The Houston Rockets have plenty  of problems, but a lackluster bench isn’t one of them any more. After months, even years of struggling to put competitive talent on the floor for all 48 minutes a night, the Rockets have found a group that’s not just taking the load off the starters, but taking on good teams and coming out ahead. The bench clamped down on defense and hustled out to an 18 point lead while James Harden rested, which is a confluence of events so good that it had to be offset by four weeks of injury rest for Dwight Howard.

With Howard out, the Rockets are doubling down on defense and tonight they ramped up the effort in a game that was, on balance, tough and brutal. The Rockets shot 41% from the field and 30% from three point range and still led by double digits for much of the game. Joakim Noah had a career-high 19 rebounds, but made only a single point in a truly bizarre outing. Taj Gibson was the only Bull off the bench who had anything like a good night, and he played 30 of the 64 bench minutes for the team. The Rockets, on the other hand, used almost half again as many minutes for their bench unit, clocking in at a clean 90. Nobody played more than 36 minutes, the win was comfortable, and Dwight Howard is one game closer to health.

James Harden didn’t score at all in the third quarter, sat on the bench for most of the fourth quarter, and still hit his season average of 27 points per game. His 9-20 shooting, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, a steal and two blocks were actually a lackluster line for him, but he passed the eye test with gusto. He put Jimmy Butler on his heels repeatedly, and forced double coverage from a team that was having trouble with the headband crew. Harden is going to need more rest as time goes on, but for now, as long as he doesn’t top 36 minutes a night, he’ll have plenty of gas in the tank to keep at it. This year more than others, the Rockets seem to be in it for the marathon.

Trevor Ariza, another key player in need of rest, played only 34 minutes and did some damn fine work in them. He shot 3-5 from deep and 7-10 overall for a clear 20 points, a number that looks just fine next to the 5 rebounds and 2 steals he racked up. Since the bench has picked up the slack, Ariza has started to look more like the early season Ariza who was fitting in perfectly. His contribution is still more important than most people realize, and he’s only settling in. The more he develops rapport with the team, the more dangerous they’ll be in April.

Donatas Motiejunas didn’t have an amazing evening, but he also didn’t have a bad one. It’s been a while since he’s really laid an egg, and his 7-15 shooting for 15 points and 10 rebounds is as close as he’s been in a while. A double-double may be his new standard until Dwight Howard returns, and the luxury of a second seven-footer at center was something that seemed impossible when Asik left. His post game isn’t just good for a third-year player, it’s just a very solid post repertoire that’s only improving. If he can keep improving his already solid defense, he’ll be a major asset as a backup for Dwight, and as a key starter next to Howard.

Two players who aren’t making a case for themselves are Patrick Beverley and Joey Dorsey, who continue to look out of sorts. Dorsey is simply in over his head, and 4 points on 6 shots with 9 rebounds is about the most you can expect of him on any given night. He’s doing the best he can, and he’s absorbing some of Dwight’s Minutes without particularly hurting the team. That’s more than was expected of him to start the season, so kudos to him for putting his head down and powering through. Patrick Beverley, however, remains something of a mystery, and his running push shot and rebounding enthusiasm are the only reasons he got the 8 points (on 10 shots) and 5 boards he did. Whatever’s going on with him will have to be resolved soon, whether it’s effort, health, fatigue or changes in the defensive system. With Isaiah Canaan (and apparently Alexey Shved, apparently) licking their chops on the bench, Beverley has little room for error.

The bench, by the way, was good, if not accurate. Corey Brewer, Jason Terry, Josh Smith and Terrence Jones shot a combined 9-31, including a deplorable 2-11 from three. 27 points isn’t exactly great for 90 minutes of play, but Josh Smith’s 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks were amazing, and the defense and hustle from that group was mission critical. Look for that four-man group to continue to come off the bench swinging all February long.

In a stretch of games that looks harder on paper than in person, the Rockets begin the no-Dwight February with a bang. The Bulls aren’t on top of their game, but tonight the Rockets were ready, willing, and able to capitalize on a slumping team and get a much-needed win. If they’re going to hang on to home court advantage in the first round, the Rockets need this lively bench brigade to keep at it, and for Harden to play like an MVP every night of the week.

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