The road hasn't been too kind to the Rockets this season, so despite the Los Angeles Clippers' late-game comeback last night in a game that Houston could have put away much sooner, I'm not about to complain over a win. Nor am I going to dismiss the importance of the Rockets' undefeated road trip given the three lousy or disadvantaged teams they played: three straight wins are three straight wins. Add the home win over Memphis and that's four straight wins. This concludes today's math lesson.
Here are ten thoughts that popped up in last night's 97-92 victory over The DeAndre Griffin Show:
1. Welcome back to offense, Shane Battier. It's been a long time since Battman hit his threes at such a high rate, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of it all is that Battier isn't solely relegating himself to the Corner of Shane - instead, he has hit shots from all over the floor. The Battier Jump Hook play also seems to be in a groove, too. If Battier can continue to be a consistent safety valve for Kyle Lowry, Aaron Brooks or anyone else for that matter, it becomes so much easier for Houston to score with greater efficiency. Basically, combined with Chuck Hayes' improvement in the layups department (we can't underrate Chuck's hands, either: he catches passes that a lot of forward/centers would flub), Battier's mere existence becomes the difference from going 3-5 to 5-5 on offense.
2. Whomever records the shot charts for Clippers games must love DeAndre Jordan. Prior to the game, one can place a single green dot directly underneath the rim that can serve to record all of Jordan's made baskets, since they will literally all be dunks. If I haven''t said this before, I actually went to high school with Jordan for a single year. He's one of the most frustrating frontcourt talents to watch, if only because he seems so close to becoming a legitimately dangerous threat at center. His athleticism is off the charts (though it somehow gets minimized by playing next to Blake Griffin), he has a good attitude if you can get him off his high horse and the only thing holding back his jump shot or free-throw stroke (each of which looks like near-perfect form as it leaves Jordan's hand) is the fact that it simply will not go in.
3. The Chuckwagon made Blake Griffin look human last night. In fact, FS Southwest essentially gave us the "ChuckCam" as it switched over to the baseline camera for each and every Hayes/Griffin battle, allowing us an up-close view at how Hayes manages to stop wildebeests* like Griffin. Answer: he's a roadblock on greased wheels. He's quick to shut off the point of attack in a post move and forced Griffin to jump straight up and attempt awkward hook shots throughout his time on the floor. Kudos to you, Chuck: your defense did not go unnoticed.
4. Patrick Patterson was probably as surprised as anyone to hear his name called midway through the second quarter. He finished the game with three more minutes than Jordan Hill and, coincidentally, three fewer fouls. But we finally saw a positive sign from Patterson: his jump shot. He caught a pass in the short corner and nailed a somewhat long jumper, shedding light to his versatility on the offensive end. It's difficult not to compare Patterson to Carl Landry, who became infinitely more effective once he developed a long jump shot. For much of last night, Patterson's role was to set screens for others and box out in the low post, but as he sees more minutes (cross your fingers this actually happens), be sure to judge him for a few little things here and there, as opposed to judging his overall play. He's not going to impact the game very much yet, but hopefully he'll provide a flicker of talent every now and then, much like he did with his made jumper.
5. Still not comfortable with Chase Budinger (2-9 FG, 1-4 3PT FG). If anyone is on the trade block right now, it's got to be Chase. Dare I infer that Budinger's rookie year might be his best?
6. Give Blake Griffin credit for corralling Luis Scola. The Tango still managed to drop 22 points, but it came on 21 shots, many of which were thwarted by Griffin's quickness to the punch. Scola often relies on his quick pivot in order to get off a hook or an easy layup, but Griffin did his homework and kept forcing Scola to use his up-and-under to the left. I would have been able to see more of the man's defense, but I was too busy trying to pick my jaw up from off the ground after seeing him nearly hit the rim with his head on his alley-oop finish.
7. SPEAKING OF NEAR-FATAL FACIAL FINISHES:
8. Love the fact that Houston is now fifth in the league in assist percentage: 62.97 percent of their shots are assisted. Battier racked up seven assists, Lowry had six, Brooks had five, Martin had four and even Chase Budinger dished out a pair. The Rockets are winning with balance, which is nice when you face poor defensive teams. However, once the Rockets begin to face the good defensive teams (i.e. the top third in the league in defensive efficiency), they're going to need to either be A) On top of their game in regards to ball movement, or B) They're going to have to go acquire a star wing player, which isn't too likely this season.
The more I think about the Rockets' struggles against good defensive teams (we're 0-6 against them, by the way), the more I realize that A) These are the teams that will make the playoffs and dictate pace in the playoffs, and B) The primary advantage of having a star wing player like Carmelo Anthony is that this particular player can step up for the team when the collective offense is shut down - he is someone who can play outside the offense at an efficient rate and counteract an otherwise impenetrable defense whose rotations are sound and swift (i.e. the San Antonio Spurs or Dallas Mavericks). We'll postpone this discussion for later, though.
9. Ball movement, however, is pivotal in winning, regardless of how much star power is on a roster. In the three road wins leading up to the Christmas break, Houston won late games because of their ability to share the ball between five players better than the other team. The Clippers offense was stagnant the whole night and depended on Blake Griffin water-polo-ing the ball to someone or trying to make a move of his own through a double-team. The game prior, it was Monta Ellis who was forced to carry the load, and the game before that, the Kings didn't really have an answer for who to go to in the fourth quarter. So, despite my mini-rant in point number eight, it can't be overstated how important balance and ball movement is to a consistently efficient and potent offense. Star power alone, Monta Ellis, will not win games consistently.
10. I'm really glad that we didn't have the chance to draft Al-Farouq Aminu. He isn't very good.
Addendum: You know Kevin Martin is really good when he scores 28 points and I don't reserve a point for him. I suppose I am rather used to him doing super-spectacular scoring things, which is something that I probably should stop taking for granted.
*I realize it makes no sense, but just go with it.