A lot has been written about the effects of the shortened season: Player fatigue, worse offense, the reenforced home-court advantage, etc. One thing I haven't read about is a loss of perspective. I don't know, maybe I'm imagining it, but it seems like the basketball sporting media has decided to latch onto maybe two or three dominate "storylines" and run with them at the expense of everything else happening. I think that's because there are often ten or eleven games being played on any one night, and then the next night will be the same thing. There's no time to notice that the Spurs are destroying teams on their road trip, or that the Magic are actually playing well after all that noise a few weeks ago, or that Boston is collapsing again. It's just Linsanity and maybe the Heat.
Well, the Rockets are halfway through the season's schedule (33 games played out of 66), they've got a .576 winning percentage (note -- this was also their Pythagorean Record last year, which would have been good enough to win them the 7th seed last season if they had been just a bit less unlucky), and they're very firmly in the playoff mix. Maybe I only think that's a big deal because I'm a Rockets fan, but I think it's kind of a big deal. Two years after the beginning of the end for Yao Ming's NBA career, when the question surrounding the Rockets was "can they win without a 'star?'" we are seeing them do so. Maybe that should make some people rethink their definition of "star," or maybe it should make them think about what is actually necessary to win at NBA basketball, but I doubt that even if the Rockets do make the playoffs that there will be much reevaluation done. Yes, the Rockets have a whole half-season to fail, but this is a far better position to be in than one from the outside looking in.
Oh, right, the game. The Rockets came into this game having lost their previous two matchups against the Grizzlies, both in Memphis and both by double-digits. But it was eery how closely the script from last night mirrored tonight's performance: a very close game through three quarters, followed by a final Rockets surge and ultimate victory.
Just as in the last game, Kyle Lowry was the key to it all. This was a little more of a typical Kyle Lowry performance, though -- still great, but a little less efficient in shooting and passing, and a lot better on the boards. Kyle always seems to get psyched up for games against the club that ditched him for a low Orlando Magic draft pick in '09, and this game was no different: 24 points on 17 shots, 9 assists (4 turnovers), and 7 rebounds. Kyle Lowry outplayed the man whom the Grizzlies picked over Lowry -- Mike Conley -- in every way. No contest. Breaking down the defense, hitting several "in your face" threes, and leading his team to a much-needed win, this was all Kyle.
Kevin Martin rebounded from a mediocre game last night, shooting well and even getting a few good assists in there. The key was, again, good screens and better decision-making on Martin's part, frequently passing up semi-contested threes for unguarded midrange shots. On some nights those shots don't go in, but tonight they did, and the result was a great performance from Speed Racer. He had one crazy possession in which he, like Kobe, threw the ball off the backboard to himself and then banked the shot home. Pretty coool...
The other guy leading the Rockets tonight was Patrick Patterson. While Patterson's shooting numbers are down this year (something to be expected through a combination of regression -- he had a ridiculous shooting percentage from midrange last season; probably unsustainable -- injury, lack of training camp, and the overall scoring environment this season), more troubling has been his worse rebounding numbers (again, likely a combination of most of the above), but tonight he fought for everything and destroyed the Grizzlies bigs on the boards as the Center in the Rockets' small lineup. That made it possible for the Rockets' other bigs -- Samuel Dalembert and Luis Scola -- to get some rest (though both played well in limited minutes). Patterson may very well be the best defender amongst the Rockets' big men, even if Dalembert gets the blocks.
Greg Smith complemented Patterson for much of the night, though this was very much a comedown game for him: 11 minutes and just five fouls to show for it. He had the wherewithal to not take any shots or turn the ball over, however, and so I'm okay with that -- you know, he's learning.
The bench as a whole wasn't the best, I guess, but Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee both played hero as the game went on. Dragic took a Grizzly elbow to the face in the third quarter, making everyone wonder if it was now Johnny Flynn time, but instead he was back in the game at the next dead ball. Lee hit the game-icing three in the fourth quarter and hit the next four free throws for the Rockets as Lionel Hollins decided to try for his third comeback win in a row.
Chandler Parsons has this scary thing going right now where he'll hit one three and then start shooting more. It's cool the first time one goes in, but after that it gets annoying. The one "respect me!" three is good enough, Chandler. Still, he played great defense on one of the league's many false prophets. Rudy Gay's 23 points on 22 shots helped do the Grizzlies' offense in, though you wouldn't know that from the way Bill Worrell described it. He wasn't as bad as OJ Mayo, though, so there's that. Grizzlies fans should be happy that their team has neither the resources nor pig-headedness to offer Mayo a max-contract, too.
Kevin McHale decided on an eight-man rotation tonight, and it worked. I'm liking playing all these games at home. It's a nice change of pace from the start of the season. The Rockets will face the Sixers on Wednesday before they head into the All-Star Break.