The final score was reflective of what we expected as the Rockets won by a margin of 19-points. What we didn’t expect is for it to take as long as it did for Houston to separate themselves from the undermanned Hornets.
Coming into Wednesday’s game the Rockets were likely thankful their next opponent was Charlotte. They’ve had a rough couple games and Josh Smith in particular has been experiencing trial by fire given he’s played 3-games without the benefit of a practice. That situation changed when coach Kevin McHale chose to hold an impromptu practice session Tuesday despite his team having played 3-games in 4-nights.
Last night we witnessed the benefit of that practice as the Rockets returned to their winning ways. Granted, it was the Hornets who rank close to the cellar in most categories and are without their best player (Al Jefferson) for at least a month and newest recruit Lance Stephenson for an undetermined time frame.
Houston began the game still looking stilted and displayed the same poor shooting and lack of ball movement we’ve witnessed in their losses. As the game progressed they seemed to find their groove by returning to their dominant defense. Though they had a 9-point lead by the end of the third quarter the final frame demonstrated the best on both ends as they held Charlotte to 15-points while scoring 26.
Three Keys To the Win:
ONE: In their previous two games the Rockets committed 25 and 20 turnovers respectively, high for even their standards (they average 17.3 per game). So, it was disconcerting when they had 11 by the half and led the Hornets by a mere 2-points. The fact Houston ended the game with just 15 turnovers (registering only 4 turnovers in the second half) likely had more to do with their win than anything else. Part of the reason this was possible was the team themselves were creating open men via their own movement and crisp passing.
In essence the Rockets are functioning like the season is just beginning as the team and new players become accustomed to each other. With the addition of Smith it provides an interior athletic presence on both ends of the court and a quality passer and with the addition of Corey Brewer they have a player who can drive the ball, shoot from the perimeter and excels in fast breaks and transition offense. Ultimately while they integrate the new players wins will be easier to achieve if they protect the ball as was clearly demonstrated tonight.
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TWO: Part of why the team was successful at protecting the ball was once their shots began to fall it forced the Hornets to defend outside the paint. How they got open shots was increasing the pace of the game and ball movement. In the first half the Rockets weren’t as successful from outside the paint which meant Charlotte could clog the paint to stop drives or inside passes.
Basically the Rockets need to learn they may shoot the most three’s in the league, but they require player movement, a quicker pace and crisp passes without turnovers or every team will just take their chances on the Rockets, clog the paint and let them shoot from outside until they start connecting.
THREE: The other factor tied to their ball movement and low turnovers was the Rockets focus on defense made all of the above possible. The team still ranks second in defense but had been slipping in their recent losses allowing teams to shoot a much higher field goal percentage.
By increasing their energy, pace and defensive focus they took over the game. At the end of the half Charlotte was shooting 41.5% , by game end Houston had cut that to 38.2%.
Moving forward the keys will obviously be
1. Make defense the priority: When the Rockets focus on the defense first through energy and focus it organically allows them to excel on the offensive end of the floor.
2. Pace: Houston need to control the pace of the game. When their defense isn’t creating turnovers they need to force the situation by controlling the tempo which offers them inside or outside shooting and forces the opposition to defend both.
3. Player and ball movement: When the team doesn’t start the play via a steal or rebound they need to emphasize ball/player movement. By the time the playoffs roll around movement needs to be firmly part of their fundamentals since much of the post season offense occurs in the half court.
Several times in the second half the team moved the ball quickly up the court which allowed the players to get into their offensive sets quicker and for the most part led to someone being open.
For the fourteenth time this season James Harden scored at least 30 points (36) and did it on just 19 shots with an uncharacteristically low 4-free throw attempts. Part of the reason he had so few free throws is he was shooting over 63% from the field and 73% from three. His eight 3-pointers were a career high. More impressive was his game management and involvement of his teammates. He had a game high 6-assists as well as several hockey assists.
Play of the night:
Although we saw this type of quick outlet pass occur multiple times in the second half this was a perfect example of how the team controls the game via sharp passing, pace and ball movement.
While Josh Smith only scored 5-points we got a peek at the intangibles he can provide as he filled up the stat sheet: four rebounds, three steals, three blocks and three assists. He is still adapting to the new system, but this game was a prime example of what benefits Smith can bring to the team.
Practice time will be difficult to find given the team doesn’t have 2-consecutive days off in January until the 26th and 27th. Prior to that they’ll play every other day with 3-sets of back-to-back games. The Rockets will also have three 3-game road trips. Expect coach Kevin McHale to conduct practice sessions on the road to expedite the learning curve for Smith and Brewer to offset their late addition to the team.
Next up for the Rockets they travel to New Orleans for a tilt versus Anthony Davis and the Pelicans on Friday, January 2.