The Rockets played admirably against the Pacers Sunday, but Indy was too tall, too strong and too big.
WHO: Pacers 104, Rockets 102 (OT)
WHAT: In the revolving door that disguises itself as the Western Conference playoff race, the Rockets sit at 28-25, all alone in 8th place in the West. They’re a game ahead of Utah for that spot, and a game behind Denver for 7th, the spot they should be gunning for since it’s this man’s opinion they are better off against the Spurs than the red-hot Thunder. Houston has played its heart out this season, but it has some red flags that make it anything but a sure bet for the postseason. Two areas of concern that I’ll be keeping an eye on with the tall, paint-oriented Bulls, Lakers and Kings coming up this week: rebounding and free throws (in regard to actually getting there), two aspects that have cost the Rockets more than their share of games this season. The Pacers outrebounded the Rockets 9-0 in overtime, which I would have refused to believe if I hadn’t watched it with my own two eyes.
WHAT HAPPENED?: In arguably the most exciting game this season, the Rockets fell just a bit short to the taller, stronger, better Pacers. It’s not a shame that they lost, but it is another one that got away, and the ones that have gotten away are adding up to where they will likely make the difference should the Rockets – 17-15 in games decided by five points or less – miss the playoffs. Many will focus on the traveling call on Courtney Lee off his steal late in OT with a three-point Pacers lead when it should have been ruled a jump ball, but there are some things the Pacers did consistently throughout that earned them the advantage (I’m a big believer that the NBA is as much a first-quarter game as it is a fourth-quarter one). For one, they rebounded (54-44, including 14 offensive rebounds). Two, they got to the free-throw line, making 24 of 28 to Houston’s 5-for-10. The latter, to me, was absolutely crucial. Those two things were costly for the Rockets (particularly the plethora of second chances allowed in overtime). Oh, yeah, and then there was Danny Granger, who provided yet another example of what a closer can do for a team. Granger, no All-Star and a second-tier talent in this league, carried the Pacers offensively, particularly in the second half. He scored 32 points, hit 11 of his 20 shots and connected on 6 of 8 from 3. The Rockets were propelled by the inspiring play of Marcus Camby, but did not get enough inside attack and simply had to work harder for offense than Indy, which is what happens when you don’t have anyone you can go to for an easy bucket at any point at any time in the game.
SUCCESS AGAINST SIZE: One of the things I’ll be looking at during this stretch against Indy, Chicago and the Lakers is how the Rockets fare against size, which they will see against either Oklahoma City or the Spurs should they make the playoffs. Houston’s bigs performed admirably Sunday against the Pacers, with Camby, Patrick Patterson and Samuel Dalembert shouldering the load in the first half, certainly when they made their run to cut a 9-point Pacers lead to 2 by halftime. But that inside play was few and far between in the second half, and that was a turning point. Defensively, the Rockets’ bigs were strong, bodying up 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert (15 points, 6-for-14 shooting) and David West (12 points, 5-for-12 shooting). That was encouraging. The last few games (on Friday against Memphis the Rockets grabbed 42 rebounds and blocked 9 shots as Camby and Dalembert combined for 13 points and 18 rebounds) have been promising. Very promising. It’s been a long accepted notion that Houston will be heavily guard-oriented offensively, but if it can contest opposing bigs, put bodies on people, alter shots and rebound, it will make a world of difference from where it was pre-Camby.
THE CAMBY MAN CAN: It didn’t take long for Dalembert to lose his starting spot. Camby earned the nod Sunday after stellar play Friday, and, once again, he didn’t disappoint. The 37-year-old notched 10 points, 9 rebounds, 4 steals and 4 blocks in 36 minutes, and that’s not including intangibles such as his presence defensively or his ability to stretch out offensively and knock down the mid-range baseline jumper. It’s my opinion that Dalembert is better suited for the second unit anyway, where he can show more of his offensive game (extremely underrated) and be the backbone for that defense, along with Patrick Patterson. But after a strong second quarter Sunday (4 points, 6 rebounds), Dalembert did not play in the second half in a coaching move that was questionable at best, particularly considering the foe. I feel Camby and Dalembert should have both been on the floor late, especially in OT, instead of Scola. That was proven with the way Indiana relentlessly attacked the offensive glass. If anything, Camby’s emergence as the leader of the Rockets’ defense should not mean diminishing minutes for Dalembert, but for Scola, especially when Patterson is the better power forward at this current moment.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?: Aside from the strong performance of the bigs against a large Pacers team, the Rockets have little else to take away from the game. That’s neither good nor bad. They played hard and simply fell short. It will be interesting to see how the Camby/Dalembert rotation plays out, and how it particularly affects Dalembert, who can be moody. But it’s a game you just have to suck up, take and move on, especially with a dominating Chicago team looming Monday. The Rockets have no room to sit and ponder of what shoulda, woulda, coulda been; instead, they have to rest up and move on. Thirteen games remain in the season, and their future is far from certain.