Before I start, note that anything positive I have to say about Houston’s 25-point victory over New Jersey should be taken with a massive grain of salt. The win means nothing as the Rockets beat up on a team without its best player, their playoff chances are about as slim as my chances of winning my office bracket and if they hadn’t choked away the game against Miami, they might not be in a position that they are in now, which is essentially praying David West’s injury leads to an epic New Orleans collapse.
The Rockets beating up New Jersey on the road was about as impressive as a college grad showing up a kid’s birthday party, grabbing the broomstick from the birthday boy’s hand and beating the crap out of a pinata in front of friends and family. Congratulations on destroying a helpless opponent. Now grab a piece of cake and get the hell out.
While the Rockets won every quarter of tonight’s game, they really won that game in a six minute stretch between the first and second quarter. Up 19-17 at the 4:16 mark in the first, the Nets had a look of a young team that might want to hang around for a little bit. Vujacic and Farmar were hitting jump shots while Lopez and Humphries were eating up the Rockets’ bigs inside. That’s when Houston woke up, when on a 22-2 run that crushed any hope New Jersey had of a “Cleveland beating Lebron’s Heat”-esque game. From that Humprhies layup to a Courtney Lee jumper at the 10:00 mark in the second, Houston turned a 2-point deficit into a 39-21 lead. So how did they do it?
It started with defense and quick hands. Houston had thee of their seven steals in that stretch. Out of their 12 possessions in that 10 minutes, New Jersey turned the ball over five times (including a shot clock violation) and they made only six of seven field goals. It was also one of the few stretches in the game they did a good job of keeping Lopez (22 and 7 on the night) out of the paint, despite one layup in that stretch. Offensively, it wasn’t one player doing it all. In fact, seven different players combined to score those 22 points, going 8-13 from the floor with three layups and three open 3-pointers and assisting on four of eight field goals.
Overall, the Rockets assisted on 30 of their 46 field goals, a feat even for a team which averages 23.5 per game, third most in the league. While the ball movement was phenomenal all around, special credit has to be given to the quarterback, Kyle Lowry, putting up another double-double with 16 points and 10 assists. Early in the game, Kyle was on fire, putting up 14 of his 16 in the first quarter on 5-7 shooting and nailing all three 3-point attempts. Later on, when his shot wasn’t falling, he deferred to his teammates more, orchestrating some briliant passes and some solid work in transition. The Rockets had 19 fast break points and Lowry was a huge part of that, assisting on at least three transition layups that I saw. The most impressive came at the end of the third on a Courtney Lee steal in which Lee thought about shooting it before dishing it to Kyle and getting it back for a dunk with 1.4 seconds left in the quarter.
On the night, the 16, 10 and 7 Lowry was posted gives him a ridiculous 20, 8 and 5 for the month of March (including shooting .480 from the floor and .400+ from beyond the arc). Consider he was questionable going into the game with a hurt feet makes the game even more impressive, but nothing he does surprises me at this point and if my midseason MVP was Chuck Hayes, my second half MVP is Lowry, and I don’t think there’s a close second.
Lowry may have handled the scoring load in the first, but the rest of the game was managed by Martin and the bench. Kevin started the game slowly (an annoying habit I’m seeing more and more from him), but after scoring only two points for nearly the entire first half he put up 18 from three minutes left in the first until the end of the game, even throwing in a couple of highlight reel dunks I wasn’t expecting.
The bench deserves some serious credit tonight, especially Lee, Dragic, Hill and Patterson, who combined for 46 points on 20-31 from the floor, 4-6 from beyond the arc and 21 rebounds. Lee and Dragic run the floor so well together and I love their versatility at both ends of the floor. Both guys hit it from range on the night, both guys ran the point at times and both guys can guard opposing twos quite well. Dragic hit three from beyond the arc and had two solid drives for layups on the night, but I’ve been so impressed with Lee the past few weeks that I’m beginning to wonder if he should be starting instead of Bud. Hill and Patterson put up 16 boards on the night, and while neither did a stellar job on Lopez, they were certainly better than in the Miami game. What impressed me most was their range, as both guys had their share of 15-18 footers. Hill had one of his better games that I’ve seen in a while and was really active on the offensive glass with five offensive boards and a couple of nice put backs.
THE BIG PICTURE
Back to reality for a minute, the next eight days will be crucial for Houston. The way Memphis is playing, I just can’t see them dropping off, so I’m banking on the Hornets without West to crumble at the end. New Orleans plays four games in that span including Portland tomorrow, Memphis, Indiana and then meet the Rockets on April 6. Houston plays five games in that span: Philly tomorrow, San Antonio (hopefully sans Ginboli, Duncan), Atlanta, Sacramento and the Hornets. If in that stretch Houston doesn’t go at least 4-1 (including a win over the Hornets) and New Orleans at best 2-2, the Rockets are done. I really hope that in a week I’m not already writing offseason features. The Rockets are playing their best basketball right now, and as crazy as it sounds, they could make a series out of a matchup with San Antonio. Sure, they’ll probably get killed in the playoffs, and I’ll start to wonder if they should have tanked for the draft, but I’m still a fan, dammit, and who doesn’t love seeing their team in the NBA playoffs?