Wow! This was a fun night at Toyota Center. It's not going to be a regular game account though, as a lot went on and this will be something akin to impressionism.
Tonight was a big game, and really, a must-win for the Rockets. We needed a win against a Portland team down Brandon Roy, its two centers and a few assorted others. We got it, but they made us sweat at the end. Portland displayed heart, determination, and a fantastically deep bench, in that they were able to substitute Rocket-Killer Roy for Nearly-Rocket-Killer Fernandez.
Now for the personal narrative you've doubtless awaited. The night started with a reception for Rookie Season Ticket Holders. The Rockets put on a nice spread with the food definitely being a cut above my initial expectations. Even better, various Rockets luminaries (not players - they were in shoot-around) appeared for a meet-and-greet.
This may pretty much sum up The Dreamshake: I passed on a personal photo with Clutch, and several lovely Power Dancers, but managed to get a (cameraphone) snap of me and Daryl Morey.
Dreamshakers will be pleased to learn that our admirable Rockets GM announced he's a reader, and then asked me what trades the blog thought he should make. Of course, he was completely serious, standing, cell phone at the ready, to consummate a deal. Perhaps not, but I will say that he's extremely pleasant in person, and taller than you might think.
Morey made a few remarks to me and the crowd that I found interesting, but also mentioned a certain reticence to speak more openly because of exactly what's happening here - people writing on the net. I am thus convinced that nothing I might convey is Top Secret. I'll leave that conversation for a later article.
The second fun thing was a seat upgrade from our great season ticket representative. We ended up literally two rows behind the Trailblazer bench. That view has much to recommend it, and definitely produced some hitherto unknown observational tidbits. It's really too bad we weren't playing Utah, though, because I respect and admire the Trailblazers. I couldn't get my hate on for them, though I managed a few glares my way.
Finally, before we move on to game thoughts, I met an actual, live, Dreamshake reader. I know we have heaps of great commenters and readers, but to meet an avid Dreamshake reader quite by chance was a bit surreal for me. So hello to you, Colby, and thanks for reading.
On to the game. The first thing I noticed sitting effectively on the Trailblazer bench is that these guys are tall in a way that TV can't adequately convey. The second is that these guys are playing the same game of basketball you or I have played in gyms or on playgrounds around the world. They're playing it faster, stronger, smarter and better than I could ever dream of playing, but it is still basketball. The third thing is that Nate McMilan will glare at you if you make faces at him, particularly when he's diagramming yet another Rudy Fernandez 3pt play on his chair, because he can't walk much with his hurt knee.
What I found hard to do sitting where I did is construct the same sort of game narrative that I can from my regular seat, or from watching on TV. I noticed lots of things, but they were different things. I will say, though, that if you are paying attention, a lot of (hopefully) fascinating things open up to you.
- For instance, it is difficult to see how anyone finds space to shoot - what looks like a wide open shot from a broadcast is in reality a tiny sliver of an opening, the briefest of opportunities, and those only gained from lots of hard work and movement. The players are so big that there just isn't that much empty space in the half-court set. This makes the fact that the Rockets offense generates so many open looks all the more impressive.
- The more things change, the more they stay the same. Portland didn't have an answer for Aaron Brooks yet again. We saw a lot more of Jeryd Bayless tonight, in what I presume was Portland and McMillan thinking that Bayless' speed might neutralize Brooks. Nope. None of Bayless, Blake and Miller can stay with Brooks, and only Miller can really take advantage of him on offense, but Miller is so much slower than Brooks that he hardly saw the floor tonight (21 minutes).
- Portland hit upon a novel idea, and put their designated pest/stopper, Nic Batum on Brooks. This worked pretty well, as Batum, while not as fast as Brooks, is surprisingly quick, and could play off him a bit to limit drives, yet he is tall enough to contest Brooks' shooting despite the space between them. It creates other mismatches on the court, like Blake on Scola or Landry a couple times, but Brooks has to see them to take advantage, and that's harder with Batum on him. I expect we'll see more of that next time we play Portland. Seeing Brooks' speed and fluidity up close, though, is pretty amazing. Why he lasted until we drafted him I'll never know.
- Carl Landry had his best game in some time, in my opinion, with no one available to Portland able to answer his combination of Power/Speed/Shooting. Landry is also relentless, several times cleaning up trash, or working hard with Scola for rebounds that ended in dunks.
- LaMarcus Aldridge, while really a splendid shooter, appears to come by his "slightly soft" reputation honestly. With Portland (and Houston) having effectively no center available, Aldridge was usually the tallest man on the court. Instead of working inside, he took a lot of jumpers, most of which crawled in in the first half, and crawled out in the second. He scored 20, and notched 4 blocks, but he should have had more, and it is a testament to the Rockets D that they effectively closed LaMarcus down in the second half. But you almost never see him play close to the basket, or try any power moves whatsoever. In some ways he's more like a SF. Apparently LaMarcus had a lot of friends and relatives at the game, as there were a number of nice ladies cheering for the Blazers, but mainly for LaMarcus.
- It looks like a really unpleasant night to deal with Scola, Landry, Battier, Ariza, Hayes and Lowry. Scola, in particular, is tirelessly physical, and insists that the opponent work for everything, not just a shot, everything. He makes it hard to get rebounding position, to get a rebound, to set a pick. If he can muscle into an opponents space without drawing a foul , he will. The only thing he doesn't really try to deny is a bad shot attempt, like that not-quite-a-three shot that Aldridge takes a little too often.
- Hayes operates differently than Scola. He's physical as well, but Hayes seems to see everything before his opponent. His vision and anticipation are amazing, Battier is much the same way. I counted at least 3 times that Hayes was moving to cut off a play before his matchup moved to get a pass. To use some military jargon, Hayes spends a lot of time inside his opponent's "decision loop". It may not always work, but its rarely for lack of making the proper play.
- Trevor Ariza played a controlled and useful game tonight. I thought his defense was solid and he took very few problematic shots. He went 5-11, and 1-2 from 3pt range. Add in 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals and it was a good night. His handle is definitely more assured than at the start of the year, if not a thing of beauty .
- Portland nearly pulled this one out. They went to the Fouls & Threes strategy at the end and made what should have been a stroll to the finish into a nail-biter, mainly because the Rockets collectively decided to shoot 50% from the line. Even that would never have worked without Rudy "The Flying Squirrel" Fernandez.
- Rudy Fernandez nearly killed us, dropping one clutch three after another. Most NBA players are very impressive physically, they're guys you would notice as being really strong and fit in any situation. Not Fernandez. He literally looks like he weighs about 165 lbs and writes poetry to girls on facebook while sitting in Cafe Brasil nursing a latte all night. Seriously, if you saw him there, doing that, you'd never think he was anything but a tall skinny guy with a caffeine problem. Despite that, The Flying Squirrel is fearless, everywhere and a dangerously streaky-hot player. My impression is that he's basically not fulfilling his potential in Portland. In Roy's absence Fernandez showed himself to be a good scorer, and a committed (if somewhat out of control) defender. If his body is able to hold up to the rigors of the NBA (again in doubt as he tweaked his back diving for a ball tonight and stretched and grimaced for quite some time) he should play 30-40 minutes a night, somewhere.
- Get well, Kyle Lowry. Kyle spent 11 minutes lighting up the Blazers and keying a comeback after a flat first quarter. Another close up opinion - Lowry looks like a free safety with a great handle and a good first step. He's not tall, but he's powerful, and usually wins any contest of strength or will. According to J Feigen's tweets, he's got a "sprained knee". According to Lowry's own "tweet" he's going for an MRI tomorrow morning. Let's hope the dreaded "sprained knee" is something minor - we need Kyle. He's listed as "day to day" and he played for a few minutes after landing awkwardly, so I hope it's true and he's back soon. He asked for thoughts and prayers.
- It looks either prophetic or a dangerous tempting of fate that the Rockets brought Conroy up from the RGV. I'm glad he's here, but even after Lowry went out, he didn't make it into the game. Brooks went 44 minutes, but just didn't look all that tired. Lots of players appeared worn out and gassed tonight, but not Brooks. He honestly looked like he'd just worked up a good sweat as the game ended. It's easy to imagine that the reason for this is that Brooks played basketball 6-8 hours a day during the endless rainy winters in the Northwest. It's as good an explanation of his vast arsenal of shots as any.
- Referees, what, exactly, are you seeing Andersen do? Now I've seen him from about the same spot as you and I'm baffled. David Andersen just gets called again and again for what looks like a normal play.
- Steve Blake wears low-tops. Possibly Topsiders. Lots of Blazers wear some sort of "thigh armor" - I dunno if the Rockets do or not. Yes, lots of Trailblazers were stretching right in front of me, I'm glad, very glad, of those compression shorts.
- Juwon Howard, last NBA survivor of Michigan's Fab Five, and one-time Rocket, still looks pretty good. He's not really a center, but he's giving it his best shot. Sometimes, though, he looks frustrated that he can't do things he used to do, and you feel for him.
- It's fun to watch the bench get into the game. Blazer players would toss towels into the air right as Rockets were shooting game-deciding free throws.