Yao Ming, Rockets Need to Improve

Watching the full game Tuesday night, I feel like there is a much better Rockets’ team among this group. Scola and Brooks were complete non factors (which won’t happen often in the regular season), and this team certainly looked like they were playing a preseason game, but that doesn’t mean preseason isn’t worth watching.

Here are a few of my notes from the game:

Yao: Don’t pay attention to the stats. If you were expecting Yao to put up 20/10 playing 12 minutes in his first game back in over a year against the best defensive center of the last decade then you’re sorely mistaken. The important thing was that he looked healthy, he was able to run the length of the floor and he even dove on the ground once or twice only to bounce back up.

Offensively, I felt like the offense tried too hard to get him the ball, forcing it to him on too many occasions, but the offense ran much smoother when they let him affect the offense without taking a shot. Once or twice, Yao caught it down low, drew the double team and passed it out to an open jump shooter on the perimeter (something Yao does well and was sorely missed last season). Other times, his presence on the perimeter drew Howard from the interior, allowing guys to penetrate to the basket. He was also incredibly affective on pick and rolls as smaller defenders had a hard time getting around him. When the offense focuses less on getting Yao the ball and more on utilizing him organically, they’ll be better off.

Defensively, he certainly affected the game, but it was obvious he was a step slow. When he was in the game, Howard often settled for 10-footers, many of which he made, but I’d rather give Superman a jump shot than a dunk. While Yao didn’t block any shots, he did affect two or three drives to the basket, as players were forced to change their shots or pass when they could have easily just laid the ball against other Houston defenders. When Yao got in trouble was when he got out on the perimeter against quicker players like Gortat or when players got behind him underneath the basket. Once he gets used to the speed again, he’ll be able to utilize his size more in the paint and prevent that from happening.

The Wings: While most Rockets were ineffective offensively, there was a lot to be excited about on the wings with Martin, Lee and Budinger each scoring in double figures. Martin lead the team with 14 points, doing what he does best by getting to the line and shooting 7-8. What surprised me about Martin was his defensive intensity. He was actually trying to fight through picks, keep up with his man and even had three steals which nearly lead to transition baskets. If he truly has dedicated himself to improving on defense, I think his length could be a factor against most shooting guards. If he stays healthy, it could be an all-star year for K-Mart.

It’s no secret that Budinger has become a fan favorite  (I’m no exception), but he’s got to be more aggressive offensively. He hardly put the ball on the floor the entire game, settling for spot shots off pick and rolls (and one ridiculous shot at the buzzer of the third quarter which belongs in a game of H.O.R.S.E.). My favorite play from Bud was in the fourth, when he finally drove to the basket. Even though he had his shot blocked, he stayed with it, picked up the loose ball and got an easy layup on the put back. Even though he had a sweet stroke going Tuesday night, if he wants to excel, I need more moments from him like this.

The player of the game for me was Courtney Lee. I was excited when Houston traded Ariza for him, and his play tonight validated the move. He was tenacious defensively, taking charges and contesting shots, hit open jumpers, got to the line, was explosive in transition and even effective dribble penetrating in a half court offense. If Martin should go down, I’m confident that the offense won’t skip a beat with Lee in the game. Comparing him with Ariza, I do admit that I miss Ariza’s length. Once or twice (one against Vince Carter in particular), he played perfect defense but the offensive player still made a shot over his outstretched hand. Ariza could have affected those shots with his length. However, Ariza doesn’t have anything close to Lee’s ball control or outside stroke. Mark my words… This is going to be a move Houston fans will remember and praise going forward.

Sloppy play: The Rockets averaged nearly 22 assists and 14.5 turnovers last season. Tuesday they had only 15 assists and 19 turnovers. They can’t win basketball games that way. The offense looked out of sync at times, too often relying on jump shots, or one guy trying to do everything. And neither Brooks or Lowry did a great job running the offense, each tallying 2 assists and 2 turnovers apiece. The offense was most effective when Lee or Martin dribble penetrated and either made a layup or got to the line. I have to see better ball movement out of this team.

Poor defense: While 97 points might not seem that bad, starters Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter were all effective, and Houston struggled to stop them all night. Andersen and Gortat also had decent games off the bench. Orlando poses an interesting threat to most teams because of the size of some of their outside shooters, but they weren’t that great from beyond the arc. Houston just couldn’t stop Howard or Gortat down low, and they really struggled to keep up with Orlando’s pick and roll style on the perimeter. Battier was the only consistent defender to always fight through the pick, and even he was a half-second late more than once. Houston won the rebounding battle, but a lot of that came with Howard on the bench.

Hayes, Hill and Jeffries: None of these guys were great. Hayes has certainly slimmed down, and he looked more agile and effective as a PF. He and Jeffries both even had one or two nice post moves. The problem I have with that is the offense should never resort to those guys feeling like they have to make any moves in the post. They are there for defense, and I never ever want to see Chuck Hayes attempting spin moves.

Hill continues to be a disappointment in my eyes, as it is pretty much the same story… Flashes of brilliance among huge chunks of mediocrity. He passed up multiple chances to take shots from 12 feet, was not aggressive at all offensively (even when Howard was on the bench), and got schooled more than once on defense (Howard made him look silly on one highlight dunk). There were two moments which excited me, both in the third quarter. First, Hill got his hands in Howard’s face, confused the big man a bit, and stripped the ball from him which turned into a fast break on the other end. The second was when Hill picked up a loose ball near the basket and went up strong for the layup. While I don’t think he’s very reliable on either end of the floor (and he was only 1-4 from the line), you can certainly praise him for his hustle Tuesday night, something I don’t know that I would have said last season.


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