I’ll be honest. Going into the All-Star break I heard a lot of people saying that Houston still had a chance at the playoffs and I laughed. Even with an easy schedule, I knew Houston would need to acquire a big name and have them gel almost immediately to make an impact. After they gave up Brooks and Battier for Dragic, Thabeet (yeah, I know I jinxed it with my post before the deadline) and a couple of first rounders, while I pleased with Morey’s shrewd moves I pretty much assumed like everyone else that they were headed towards rebuilding. This team was done in 2011.
Even after a convincing win against New Jersey at home and a huge win against New Orleans on the road, I still wasn’t convinced. Portland has been the Rockets’ kyrptonite this season, dominating them in their first matchup and posting a huge fourth quarter comeback win in the second. Not only was I not convinced Houston would win the game Tuesday night, I thought they would get killed on the road against an incredibly lengthy team that just added Gerald Wallace and got Roy and Camby back healthy.
Eating my own words never tasted so good.
Hyperbole is used a lot in sports, and certainly a lot on the Internet, but I’m not kidding when I say that Houston played their best game of the season. If I need to prove it to you, I won’t even have to show you film. I will just give you this following mind-blowing statistic. In the first two games of the season, Portland outscored Houston 82-48 in the paint. Last night, the Rockets completely dominated Portland inside, outscoring them 52-26 in the paint. That is not a typo. That actually happened. The same team that lost its “best defender” and is starting a 6’6″ center did that. And no, Thabeet did not suddenly play to his potential (he and Hill didn’t play a single minute), Hakeem did not decide to suit up for one last game and Portland did not sit out an entire quarter.
So how did they do it?
Swarming team defense. The same LaMarcus Aldridge that torched Houston for 25/17 and 27/13 earlier in the season put up a measly 14/3 and scored only 3 points in the entire first half. Sure Hayes had a lot to do with that (and with the defense’s success in general), but the entire Rockets team swarmed to the interior like buzzards to fresh meat or Charlie Sheen to an 8-ball. They ended up leaving a lot of 3-point shooters open Tuesday night, but they must have known that wasn’t one of Portland’s strengths (22nd best in the league) and clearly were willing to give up an open outside look instead of giving Aldridge, Wallace or Camby a one-on-one opportunity in the post.
Offensively, the Rockets were equally aggressive. Lowry, Budinger and Martin were incredible at getting to the rim and are clearly gelling in the starting lineup. They all shot 50 percent or better and though they took their fair share of jump shots (6-18 from 3′s), they were most effective at going to the rim. You wouldn’t tell Scola was playing with a sprained knee, as he scored 10 of Houston’s first 16 points and 21 overall on 10-11 from the floor with six boards and three assists. It was the single most balanced offensive performance by the starters all season with three guys scoring 20+ and some of the best ball movement I’ve seen all season.
I’d never thought I would use the old “addition by subtraction” cliche to talk about Shane Battier or Aaron Brooks, but the increased minutes for Buddy Lee (sticking with the nickname) clearly has benefited this team on both sides of the court. Budinger showed his strength at the start of the third quarter when he scored six of the Rockets’ first eight points, all of them by slashing to the basket without the ball, getting assisted by three different players on consecutive possessions, including a behind the back pass from Hayes for a dunk. Lee’s 22 minutes were invaluable, scoring 10 points and playing excellent defense on Matthews and Roy. I love how Adelman distributed the minutes between the two players, giving Budinger the early minutes to let the offense get the early lead and giving Lee minutes in crunch time to play lock down defense.
YOUNG GUYS A MIXED BAG
For starters, Hill and Thabeet didn’t play a single minute in this game and Brad “moves like Robocop in a hurricane” Miller was Houston’s biggest bench contributor in the front court. I’m not quite sure why Patterson didn’t get more time, but in only seven minutes he posted 6 points, 3 rebounds and 2 blocks. Dragic didn’t post big stats in his limited time, but I’m impressed with his ability to penetrate and create shots for himself and for others. My favorite play of the entire night came in the second when Dragic caught a rebound, turned around driving the length of the court, went behind the back right in front of Patty Mills and laid it up, embarrassing Roy and Batum in the process. He has deceptive speed and I look forward to see him play a little more. Terrence Williams didn’t impress me at all and I’m not quite sure why I hear so many Rockets’ fans beg for him to get playing time. He checked into the game and immediately fouled Batum on a 3-point shot, giving up three points at a time Houston was pulling away in the second. He also took two ill-advised shots early in the shot clock. Right now, I don’t know how Houston can justify giving him more minutes.
PATH TO THE PLAYOFFS?
Winning their last five and six straight on the road, Houston still has a long way to go before they make the playoffs. They’re three games back of Memphis (who is playing extremely well) and Portland (who will get better as they figure out the chemistry). Denver and New Orleans are 4.5 and 4 games ahead, respectively. The schedule is favorable in the last 20 games, with 12 games at home and 13 games against either non-playoff teams or sub .500 teams. Their next four at the Clippers (tonight), Indiana at home, at Sacramento and at Phoenix are a great opportunity to get a cushion and start chipping away at the teams in front of them. If they keep playing this well than this “rebuilding” team could be looking at a 5-8 seed in April.