Variations on a theme of Rocketry

I wasn't kidding about a recap, it's just that DVR time occasionally makes recaps meaningless, or non-existent.  

Here's the gist of what my angle on the recap anyway - minus much game description - and condensed down from my usual verbosity (no, really).

It's a common feature of classical music, the variation on a theme.  You could consider it the remix, or mashup, of another time.  Take a theme, or phrase of music from another composer and explore the as yet unheard possibilities.  Can the theme be expanded?  Made smaller? Changed without losing its essence?  Made joyful?  Made sad? Made into something entirely different? Can a simple tune carry the weight of an orchestra?  Can an orchestral composition be a simple tune?  This sometimes leads to the belittling of brilliance, and it sometimes leads to the mediocre being infused with genius.  At its best it is genius playing off genius.

 And yet I digress.  The point is, the Rockets season thus far can be seen as variations on a two themes, usually played in the same game.  Theme one is - The Rockets can score a ton of points on anyone.  Theme two is - The Rockets cannot control any aspect of the paint.

 

Tonight these themes played out against Minnesota, which is more a collection of interesting talents than a team.  The Rockets offense, effective on most occasions, was a bonfire on a cold night Minneapolis night in the first half.  Shots fell, Minnesota shots did too, but not as many.  

This is theme one of the season, presented in a triumphal leitmotif - a big swelling brass and percussion affair - as the Rockets offense blasts effortlessly over the opponents' thin screed of strings.  But that sort of movement is hard to sustain.  It is a mad rush, and mad rushes inevitably lose vigor.  They're tiring, shots stop falling, the bench comes in and can't keep up, or vice-versa.  I've yet to see four quarters of Theme One, and I think I've only see three twice this season.  Four quarters probably gets you a regular time score of around 135.  Don't hold your breath.

But with fated operatic inevitability the second movement's mournful string-filled Theme Two came to the fore - no paint control, and thus no holding a lead.  The wing defense falters because the center cannot hold. Easy drives to the rim, easy buckets in close from open men as defenders rotate and double.  

In truth this game wasn't in much doubt, despite the score, but we got to hear another variation on a familiar refrain.  We all know what happens with this second theme starts up against better sides.

The reason why the second theme is doom is because the first one can't be maintained against the second.  The bright, brassy scoring turns hollow as shots don't fall, whistles get scarce at the end of games, and the opponent keeps scoring points that are fundamentally easier to achieve than those the Rockets get with their long-range bombardment and free-throw seeking drives.

If you cannot control the paint, you cannot close games except with great difficulty.  Why?  Control of the paint allows you to dictate the tempo of the game.  When the Rockets had Yao they could turn to him and grind possessions, and grind clock, when they had a lead.  The ability to score on slow, time burning, high probability, possessions limits the other team's number of shots.  Every fewer attempt allowed by the time remaining is one less basket that can be made in a comeback. 

Defensive control of the paint forces the opponent to come back with nothing but jump shots - maybe Monta Ellis can do that, but most teams can't.  But the Rockets can't play the variation they had with Yao.  They can't close down the middle, and force bad shots, the sort of shot Shane Battier is adept at arranging.

 On the other end, Luis Scola, for all his effort, can't control the offensive paint most of the time.  Other teams have (finally) realized how dangerous he is.  The double teams come fast.  The center is often instantly on Luis because most teams will take the chance of dying by Chuck Hayes.  (Not to take away from Chuck, but he just can't punish the double of Scola properly.)  So Scola is doubled, and if all goes well, he passes out of it, but the wings don't really open up even so, because their defenders weren't needed on Scola.  So you're left with Theme One fading if the shooting gets cold.

I'll contrast the end of another game tonight with an earlier, painful, loss to Portland.  Sacramento played at Portland tonight, seeking their 10th win.  They got it by 15, in a game that had only 2-6 points between the sides until the last 6 minutes.  How?  

You may remember the theme of the Portland comeback in Houston.  Lots of  LaMarcus Aldridge operating in the paint and elbowing Hill effortlessly out of his path (no Hayes in this one - at least he'd have to expend effort on Chuck).  As the score narrowed, the pace control favored Portland - layups by a 6'11" guy, or free-throws against Rocket heaves and the defense clamped down and the whistles dried up.  Tonight Portland relied on their remaining star again.

Only this time when Aldridge went inside he was blocked no less than three times by Samuel Dalembert in the 4th quarter.  What shots Dalembert didn't block he altered.  He got most available defensive rebounds.  Portland's deliberate, pace-controlling, offense doomed them when their inside attack could be defended and their wings were forced to score (minus Roy).     The Kings are no one's idea of a dominant team, but this was a dominant finish, mainly because of Dalembert's excellent D.

So this posting is, yes, yet another variation on my theme.  Until the Rockets can control the middle to some extent, this is what they are.  When they can, a new second theme, one of controlling the center, and thereby controlling pace, can arise, and finally merge with the first. That'll bring down the house. 

Read the tricksy Canis Hoopus account here.

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