Daryl Morey stated that his new year's wish for the Rockets was to value a possession in the first half just as much as a possession in the second half.
Tonight against the Lakers, I found myself wishing for the exact same thing as the Rockets sluggishly trotted onto the court after their seemingly endless amounts of rest this past week against a Lakers team on the second night of a back-to-back.
Chandler Parsons was out with a knee injury and was replaced by Ronnie Brewer who received the most minutes this game than he had the remainder of the season, where he was mostly relegated to the position of "chair heating engineer" on the sideline. The results were awful. Ronnie scored not a single point in 23 minutes and was the culprit of a few defensive breakdowns as well.
The Lakers came out of the gate shooting quite well, hitting several long range buckets early in addition to free drives to the rim courtesy of Houston's poor defensive effort on rotations. Pau Gasol and Nick Young led the the Lakers in scoring early scoring 30 combined points in the first half, over 50% of their scoring and shooting at a 64.7% clip. Every single one of Young's pull-up long range two pointers seemed to tickle the twine and Pau Gasol was playing a complete game of basketball himself (15 points on 71% shooting, 6 boards, 1 assist, and 2 blocks in the first half). Pau was also preventing Dwight from getting anything going in the first half, holding him to 8 points and 3 rebounds on 33% shooting. Although the Rockets were clearly trying to feed him the ball numerous times down the court, Gasol was handling our star center quite defensively. In the second quarter, Dwight only scored 1 point.
Harden was the only Rockets player scoring in double figures (15) and the team was shooting below 40% for most of the half until they hit a few late in the 2nd quarter. Lin showed us a few flashes on several drives to the basket and netted 9 points by intermission. In the first quarter he looked like the Rockets best player outside of a few looks at Terrence Jones here and there.
The Rockets found themselves trailing the Lakers by between 1 and 3 possessions fairly consistently in the first two quarters on the heels of some poor 3 point shooting and an uninspiring defensive effort (sound at all familiar?). Our defensive rotations on the second level of plays were just plain lazy, our team was getting outrebounded, and, despite keeping our turnovers lower than normal, we were getting beaten in fastbreak points as well.
To be perfectly honest, I was shocked that we were within 5 points by the time those first two quarters were over.
At halftime, Houston trailed 57-52
The second half started off promising with two Laker turnovers and two fastbreak opportunities resulting in a score (Harden) and free throws (Lin) for Houston. D'antoni was visibly frustrated with their effort and was forced to call a timeout after the third open court opportunity by the Rockets shortly thereafter. Terrence Jones proceeded to take back a Rockets lead after an impressive pump fake and drive and an open jumpshot on the next few possessions.
Houston seemed to be getting its groove back a bit, grabbing their largest lead of the game halfway through the 3rd. Harden and Howard were finding some synergy on offense and the Laker's jump shots finally stopped falling consistently on plays where they could not get to the rim. There were times when it seemed like we forgot that Jordan Hill played for the Lakers when there were rebounds to be had (more embarrassingly, this was not the first game where this was the case).
Throughout the third quarter, James Harden continued being...well...James Harden.
To be fair though, an improved defense and a cooled off Laker squad had a big hand in sparking a 21-3 run that got Houston into its open court offense and got Harden into his most efficient shots; the ones he takes in transition. Harden scored 17 points in the third quarter, which included a pretty disgusting fake-out of Ryan Kelly in transition that had Toyota Center ‘ooo'ing and ‘ahh'ing.
The Rockets lead was pushed to the 20 point mark until LA started to make a little bit of a push in the latter half of the quarter but the effort proved to be too little too late.
Houston turned up its defensive effort and also took care of the ball on offense, committing very few turnovers which allowed for the score to quickly shift the way that it did in the second half. Once the Rockets get that engine revving, it really does start to add up in no time. Houston coasted from there to a 113-99 victory.
Houston closed the game out well, receiving some timely contributions from the bench which was a sight for sore eyes as well. The scoring contribution from Brooks, Garcia, Casspi, and Dmo was not eye-popping but it was sufficient to let the performances of the Houston starters seem more like they were ‘piling it on' rather than ‘carrying the team.'
As always, the W is appreciated, but I cannot help but keep hearing Daryl Morey's nasally voice in my head repeating his new year's wish like a nerdy high school kid used to wish for a graphing calculator for Christmas. This game could have been over by the 3rd quarter if we tightened up that defense in the first half and closed out harder on shooters like we did in the second half.
Our first half effort cannot be this poor against teams that have the talent to sustain their offense into the second half. I don't know how many of those OKC and Indiana games I can take.
I was, however, encouraged by several things, like our bench scoring (still low, but given injuries I was placated) and our ability to take care of the ball in the second half and avoid turnovers. Houston also forced 18 Laker turnovers, which is a weakness of this team this season so I was glad to see us being more proactive about sparking our deadly transition offense
Our three point shooting funk still seems to be holding us back (especially in that first half) as we ended up 7 for 28 (25%) from downtown.
Harden finished with 38 points on twenty three shots, 4 boards, 4 assists, and 5 steals. Terrence Jones and Dwight both nabbed double-doubles. Jeremy Lin couldn't sustain his first quarter spark, finishing with 13 points, 4 boards, 4 assists, and 4 of Houston's 9 turnovers.
I don't know how happy you can be about the team's full-game effort against this odd mixture of players on the Laker's team, but performances like Harden's in the third quarter sure are fun to watch unfold. Even though one 33-15 quarter can win us games like this, but the search committee looking for a full four quarter game from the Rockets is still out there...desperately searching for consistently play from both the team as a whole and several players individually.
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