Well, crap. Right now the Orlando Magic are better than the Rockets. There are reasons for this. Orlando has the number one center currently participating in NBA games. The Rockets have Chuck Hayes, David Andersen and notionally, Hilton Armstrong. Hayes gives up six inches and about 30lbs of muscle to Howard. Andersen gives up 50lbs, officially, though I suspect it's more.
Howard was the difference in this game. He didn't miss a shot from the field, going 11-11, some of which looked like actual post moves, rather than dunks. His free throw shooting was good too, at 8-12. Howard logged 16 rebounds and 3 assists. Everything he put up basically went in, not just the dunks, but clumsy-looking fall aways, weird turnarounds, the works.
Howard simply grabbed rebounds from the Rockets, usually reaching right over them, particularly on the defensive glass for Orlando, limiting a major Rocket weapon, the offensive rebound. Without good shooting (and some shot selections were awful) and not much offensive rebounding (other than a few possessions late) the Rockets were in trouble.
Add in the rest of the Magic doing what they do, shoot perimeter 3s, play defense, and this game was pretty easy for Orlando, who went up by 27 at one point. The Rockets rallied to make it a single digit game midway through the 4th quarter, but Houston ran out of time, ran out of rally, and Orlando, particularly Nelson, hit some big shots down the stretch.
Right now the Rockets desperately miss Lowry, and also Ariza, whose D on Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis could have been helpful. I also think Lowry is a better matchup against Nelson, defensively, anyway. Aaron scored well all night, but still gets little love on contact underneath. Instead we saw Shane Battier offering help to Andersen with Howard operating against him (and pushing off constantly, to no whistle I ever saw) and then flying across the court when the ball swung to his man (usually Lewis) in the corner. This is hopefully not a long-term defensive plan.
The Magic starters stayed in the game until it was over, even after Adelman waved the white flag with 2 minutes left and we got a look at Jordan Hill. (At this point all I can say is that Hill has impressive hair, and seems to move pretty fluidly.) Apparently the Orlando starters stayed against the Rockets "Waifs 'n' Strays" so Howard could break a Shaq record from his Orlando days tonight. Stay classy, Stan.
Any positive takeaways? Yes, a couple. Budinger played well, and seemed to aggravate Vince Carter by scoring on him more or less at will. Vince responded with some nice shooting at times, and also with out of control drives to the basket that were rescued by a Wadesque "bail out whistle".
This was not a game decided by the refs, but I thought the calls were inconsistent. When Orlando was making its run, they were constantly sent to the line on minimal contact, while the Magic got to play MMA defense, getting very handsy with nothing, and I mean nothing, called. The free throws and calls evened out on the Rockets run, but even with a great comeback effort, the damage was done, the hole was too deep. Again, this game was won largely by Howard shooting perfectly, and Orlando hitting big shots when they needed them. The disconnect, however, between calls on Orlando drives to the basket and Houston drives to the basket was simply jarring in the 2nd quarter and early 3rd.
Kevin Martin shot miserably in the first half, and looked very tentative, looking to pass first, and then moving to take a shot only after the defense had closed on him. That changed in the 2nd half. In the second half, during the Rockets comeback efforts, Martin began to show signs of being the key to a major trade. He drove to the hoop, got foul calls, and began making shots. "And 1" is going to happen a lot with this guy. He also broke down the uber-annoying Matt Barnes (NBA cheap-shot artist extraordinaire) with a vicious crossover that left Barnes angrily grabbing Martin's wrist on the shot. Martin calmly sank the FTs.
By the way, I'd imagine most people would state that Joe Johnson is a better player than Martin. That may be so, but I decided to look at Johnson and Martin on a "win shares per game" basis for their careers (not including this year). Martin gets .095 WS per game for his career. Johnson gets .073. There are flaws to this approach, and you may not like Win Shares, but it's interesting, I think. Carl Landry averages .094 not including this year.
The Rockets, like the beginning of the season, are once again a work in progress, only now there is no training camp, or pre-season, and practices few and far between. Things are going to look ugly for a while. The playoffs may well slip away. I think the team we field next year, and in the years to come, will make it all worthwhile. The Rockets aren't out, but they're down and need a big winning streak very soon.