After flaming out in the first round last year, all anyone inside or outside the Rockets organization has talked about is defense. Well, it’s clear tonight that Houston is truly committed to bringing defense back. The Dallas Mavericks, who have averaged around 110 points this season, finished with just 92 points against a Rockets team with no Dwight Howard. Trevor Ariza contributed on the defensive end despite a miserable offensive performance, and James Harden will finally get to be called “defensive” after a great job guarding Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki on the final two possessions. Houston is starting to look like the teams coached back by Jeff Van Gundy several years ago – both in the good and the bad.
We should note that Dallas’s poor offensive showing was not just the product of Houston’s play tonight. The Mavericks did play last night while Houston has been off since Wednesday, and Dirk was just not himself. Dirk scored just 11 points on 18 shots and failed to hit a single three pointer. Rick Carlisle may be one of the very best coaches in the league, but Dirk still strikes so much fear into the hearts of opposing defenders that he can still be considered Dallas’s linchpin. Tonight, that linchpin worked so poorly that Carlisle even placed Nowitzki on the bench for a time late in the fourth quarter.
However, everyone on the Rockets played their hearts out on the defensive end. Donatas Motiejunas in particular deserves praise. For much of the game, McHale played Motiejunas and Papanikolaou against Dallas’s much better frontcourt of Dirk, Tyson Chandler, and Brandan Wright (and I will freely admit: I do not know why Brandan Wright plays so few minutes for the Mavericks. He has always given the Rockets trouble, and this season leads the league in FG% at 78%) Dallas did run alley-oop plays for Wright and Chandler seemingly at will, but Motiejunas still worked to stop Dallas’s other options like the pick and roll. Motiejunas also had 14 points on just 7 shots and 12 rebounds, three shy of his career high. While Motiejunas has not developed into the starting power forward many hoped he could become, he has become far more serviceable on the defensive end than I truly expected from him.
Houston’s defense as well as some late game heroics from Harden were what ultimately won them the game. But at this point, questions need to be asked about the offense in general. At this point in the season, Houston has a top 3 defense in the league – but a bottom 10 offense as well. The Rockets are scoring nearly 9 fewer points per 100 possessions this season as opposed to last season. Tonight was their fourth straight game when they failed to reach 100 points. Tonight, Houston started off strong when their three-point shots were falling and at one point led the Mavericks 73-55 in the middle of the third quarter. But when the threes dried up, (or in Trevor Ariza’s case, never came at all), the Mavericks completely shut down Houston. In a six minute stretch in the fourth quarter, the Rockets failed to make a single field goal, while Dallas cut away the deficit and then led 91-86 with 1:22 left in the game. While Harden was resting, the Rockets lacked a true creator and were thus left to just hoist up threes with no chance of going in.
Harden heroics saved Houston this time from a third straight loss, but that will not work every time. The optimistic view is that the return of Dwight and Terrence Jones will do a great deal to bolster Houston’s offense while not harming its newfound defensive prowess. That view may not be entirely unfounded, but if Houston is to win a championship, it must possess an elite offense AND defense like every other championship team before it. Will Dwight and Jones be enough to move Houston’s offense from a bottom ten to a top ten?
If that was not enough bad news, Patrick Beverley left for the locker late in the fourth quarter. It appears that the hamstring which kept him out for four games has flared up again.
Still, a win is a win, a win over the Dallas Mavericks is a special win, and a win over the Dallas Mavericks without Dwight Howard is a truly special win.