Ladies and gents, your beloved Houston Rockets have returned. Notice anything different? Okay, notice a whole lot different? Yeah, me too.
Many NBA teams discuss shifting to an up-tempo offense throughout the course of an offseason. Few teams, if any, actually do it. Based off last night's game against the Portland Trailblazers, it's clear that the Rockets intend to put their money where their mouth is; they will be off and running in 2009-2010. Not so much due to choice, but rather due to necessity. Feeding it to Yao Ming is no longer an option, and feeding it to Luis Scola will not suffice in the same manner.
Last night, in stepped a pair of new cast members at the center position: Chuck Hayes and David Andersen. Hayes played his role brilliantly, virtually eliminating the hype surrounding Greg Oden's supposedly drastic improvement on the offensive end during the summer. He was one step ahead of Oden each time Portland fed their big man the ball, forcing Greg to throw up awkward hook shots eerily reminiscent of his underwhelming rookie season (and that's when he even got a shot off - other times Chuck knocked the ball loose or forced a travel). On the other end, Chuck made lay-ups. That is -- and should be -- 100% of his offensive production.
Where Chuck wisely chose not to contribute on the offensive end, Big Dave Andersen thrived. It's time that Houston fans embrace Big Dave's "Mehmet-ness." He's much quicker than I had imagined, though Gersson Rosas, of the Rockets front office, once called him "a less athletic [Andrea] Bargnani." That seems accurate enough. Dave won't drive through the lane like Andrea, but he showed that he's a lethal pick-and-pop shooter and can post up comfortably on the block. Andersen provided a much-needed spark in the second half, prompting a Rockets comeback that fell just short in the final five minutes.
Much of the blame for the Blazers enormous second-half lead can be placed squarely on the shoulders of one Travis Outlaw. Imagine how excited Outlaw was to see Trevor Ariza matched up against him at tip-off, as opposed to Shane Battier, who shut down Outlaw in last year's playoffs while Ron Artest guarded Brandon Roy. Outlaw didn't do much different than what he usually does; he simply made the same pull-up jumper that he has been perfecting for years now. A 23-point output in about 25 minutes (he didn't shoot much at the end) isn't going to manifest itself often - he just happened to play well tonight. Luckily for the Blazers, Outlaw and Martell Webster were able to step up, as Roy was held in check by Battier, shooting 5-18 from the field. Typical numbers for a Battier foe.
Unlike Portland's pair of young forwards, the Rockets wings weren't able to get it going. Trevor Ariza was able to knock down two three-pointers early, but soon after began to dribble his way into turnovers. That's not Trevor's game, and it, that being usage, is one of the reasons why the Rockets let go of Ron Artest in order to obtain Ariza. Ron constantly wasted Rocket possessions last season - Ariza doesn't need to fall into the same mold. However, I was certainly impressed by Trevor's driving ability. His ball-handling skills aren't great, but he can sure blow by a defender without exerting much effort. Hopefully he will utilize his quickness when in isolation, as opposed to taking on the entire defense.
Carl Landry had a tough night. We'll leave it at that. He didn't make his jumpers, and he couldn't finish inside. In other words, the bread and butter was never brought to the table. Quite unusual for Carl indeed. Yet, there's got to be some concern regarding number of blocked shots that Landry and the Rockets yielded to Portland.
As Dave has constantly pointed out, the Rockets are undersized. It's not a problem that is fixable in any way, at least not for this season. At the end of the day, point-blank shots are going to have to be converted. Yes, Portland is one of the best shot-blocking teams in the NBA, but it's not going to get much easier. It will be a process of adaptation. Brooks will have to learn to avoid driving head-on against big guys like Oden, and Landry will have to work the pump-fake and draw a foul if he can't convert the bucket. As an undersized team, if the Rockets aren't going to convert inside shots easily, they should at least draw contact and make frequent visits to the free throw line, as they did tonight. Free throws are going to be a huge chunk of the Rockets' scoring production - they must be made.
It should be intriguing to see how an up-tempo offense affects Houston's defensive numbers as the season progresses. Not only will running the break prevent players from getting a short breather on the offensive end, but it will also lead to more turnovers and subsequently more fast break points for the other team. Stamina will obviously be an issue, but so will ball control.
Lastly, the most prominent reason why the Blazers came out victorious was quite basic: they made shots, and Houston didn't. Portland wen't 10-21 from behind the arc, whereas the Rockets went 5-18 from deep. In all, the Rockets shot 37%. It's easy to say, "Well, Aaron Brooks won't go 0-6 from three, Landry won't go 3-12, and Scola won't shoot 1-6 again." However, with this team, and with the new roles that each player is embracing, you just don't know that to be true yet. The Rockets only have one or two "pure" shooters in Chase Budinger and possibly Andersen. Brooks has never shown much consistency from deep - he's not going to suddenly become reliable because McGrady and Yao are on the bench.
Despite the negatives, the Rockets were able to turn a piss-poor start into a decent opening night. Needless to say, Portland is very good, and for Houston to hang with them was quite impressive. It certainly helps for the Rockets to be free of lofty expectations going into games. You have to think it will play into their favor.
Kyle Lowry -- Had arguably his best game as a Rocket, going 12/8 with 2 steals and 1-1 from three.
Chuck Hayes -- Made Greg Oden look softer than usual, which is saying something. Had three steals, but contributed to six or seven forced turnovers.
Aaron Brooks -- Inside the arc, he was very effective. 19/5 is a good start to 09-10.
Luis Scola -- Got into foul trouble early and was never able to get going. He's going to have to continue to learn to adjust post moves on the run, as opposed to spinning regardless of the help defense that is likely to be present.
Carl Landry -- The jump shots will fall. It's only opening night.
Shane Battier's Offense -- Yeah, he guarded Kobe well, but it's not time for Shane to attempt to echo Kobe on the offensive end. Keep the acrobatic aerials to a minimum, buddy.
Next Game: Tonight @ Golden State
Blazersedge Recap -- Just realized Dave and I chose the same picture to summarize the contest. Sometimes, there's no escaping the sad reality that is Greg Oden's defensive dominance against midgets.