When one initially looked at the matchup between these two teams Saturday night, the assumption was that a Phoenix lineup starting a frontcourt of the Morris twins and long-time fan favorite Luis Scola would not be able to stop the Rockets from going into the paint at will. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case, as a strong defensive performance from Iranian Hamed Haddadi and a generally physical Phoenix playstyle hampered Houston there. Tonight, however, after almost 18 minutes of lazy defense and blasé offense, the Rockets finally woke up, rallied behind their bigs and a team performance, and ended this game by the time the fourth quarter began.
From the very beginning, it was clear that the Suns small frontcourt would not work as well as it did during the last game thanks to the performance of Donatas Motiejunas. The young 7-footer started out strong, scoring or assisting on Houston’s first 7 points and took a charge against Luis Scola before he drew two early fouls in the 1st quarter (which is something I feel Motiejunas does every single game). Yet while Donatas and the Rockets took the early lead, the game simply did not feel safe. While Jared Dudley went off in the last game, tonight Wesley Johnson took control during the first quarter to score 12 points off a series of jumpers and long 2’s. This wasn’t exactly poor defense from James Harden given the shots Johnson was making, but the Suns kept hanging around for most of the 1st quarter, answering Rockets baskets with baskets of their own to trail 30-25 after 12 minutes.
It was during the second quarter that things began to get very precarious. McHale began with a lineup of Beverley-Garcia-Delfino-Robinson-Asik, a lineup which lacked any sort of offensive firepower as bad Delfino showed up tonight. Jermaine O’Neal, returning from watching his daughter undergo heart surgery, had his way during much of the 1st half, and the Suns took their first lead of the game at 35-34 with two Haddadi free throws. While Houston retook the lead, the Suns answered right back, and a pair of 3 pointers from Dragic and Dudley respectively gave Phoenix a 43-38 lead with 5:54 to go. At that point, the Suns had shot over 60% on the field, reflecting an extremely poor Rockets defense and a sputtering offense that seemed to unable to hit jumpers or enter the paint.
But from that point, the Rockets completely took over. Dragic earned his third foul guarding Lin on the very next play and was forced to the bench. Lin was much, much more aggressive tonight compared to the earlier game, and his game was much better for it. While the jumper was not there tonight, he more than compensated for it by driving to the lane and generally avoiding his normal problem of becoming completely confused when he entered the paint, dishing it to someone else nearby or finishing himself. Wesley Johnson finally cooled down, and the Suns offense simply could not get anyone else going no matter how backscreens they ran. They scored no field goals for the next 3 minutes, and the Rockets went on a 20-2 run and were a second too late for Chandler Parsons to score a layup before the horn sounded. The Suns which had shot over 60% for much of the game finished the second half with a 50% field goal percentage and were down 58-45 at the half.
The third quarter was the one where at long last, the Houston Rockets completely outbigged Phoenix’s Morris-Scola lineup. While I mentioned Motiejunas’s strong start to the first quarter, tonight was probably the best game yet of his career. He led the Rockets with 19 points on 12 shots, prevented the admittedly offensive limited Markieff Morris from driving to the rim, finished, had some great passes ( including a behind the back pass to Asik) and showed his deft touch around the rim. The only real problem Motiejunas had is the fact that he doesn’t seem to quite have the range to hit the non-corner 3, but it was still an excellent game. Asik in turn finished the passes which Beardsanity provided for him, completely shut down the paint, and also refused to fall for any of Scola’s legendary ball fakes. At one point, an up and under from Luis resulted in the ball being stuck at the rim, something which I don’t recall him ever doing in five years of play for the Rockets. Later, Smith also rebounded very nicely from his terrible first half performance, playing defense for possibly the first time this year and aggressively rebounding and boxing out O’Neal. Harden was extremely quiet scoring during that third quarter as he only attempted one shot, a 3 pointer, towards the end, but he did not need to do much given the effort from the Houston bigs. It is clear that McHale acknowledged this performance as in a victory perhaps greater than the actual win tonight, Carlos Delfino did not play a single minute at the power forward position.
- Aaron Brooks came in the game for the first time in a Rockets uniform in over two years. Given the whole controversy between him and Lowry that seemed to occupy his last days as a Rocket in 2011, I was genuinely surprised at the crowd’s reaction to him. They began chanting for Brooks to come out on the court with about 8 minutes left in the game and gave him a standing ovation when he finally came on 3 minutes later. Brooks was not exactly spectacular in garbage time as he was far too casual passing the ball, but the crowd was louder whenever he grabbed the ball and went absolutely nuts when he went a single 3-pointer. He currently doesn’t seem to be as good as Patrick Beverley, who finally managed 6 points after 3 straight scoreless game but continued his pesky defense and good all-around game, but it’s nice to see Brooks finally come out on a night when so many former Rockets were on the floor tonight.
- On a note not totally related to the Rockets, the less I say about Spencer Hawes, the better.