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On Monday Night, Chase Budinger Saved The Rockets

To understand the importance of the topic of this post, we need to start with the bad.

Statistics could easily tell the story of Chase Budinger's sophomore slump, but they are not wholly necessary. To judge Budinger's 2011 campaign is to pass gaze at the sullen, disoriented, frustrated expression he wears on his face each time he takes the court.

So quickly has Budinger gone from a draft steal to a major question mark that despite this only being his second year in the league, I think he may have plateaued. If anything, a clear indicator of Budinger's direction lies upon his face. Each time he misses an open three-pointer and each time he gets beat on defense, it becomes increasingly clearer: Budinger hasn't an ounce of confidence in his step or stroke. Each time Budinger catapults a shot towards the basket, it does not appear as if he is shooting to make the basket. Rather, it looks like he's desperately trying not to miss. From my seat, there is no tangible level of confidence or enjoyment evident in his play.

It's no secret that Budinger enjoys the sport of volleyball and that he is uncommonly skilled in the area, as he was once ranked a top five player in the country. He wasn't a role player: he was the player. I wonder how often Budinger yearns for his better sport. 

Opposing general managers with interest in Budinger can look at his decline in production from his rookie year and present a few plausible explanations. He hasn't been able to play much with Kyle Lowry on the second unit, his primary setup man from a year ago. He sprained an ankle back in September after a nice Summer League showing and didn't have as much time to prepare for the season. Or, he's just in a sophomore slump, often as common amongst pro basketball players as chicken pox is with toddlers.

Let's hope that these are the primary conclusions reached, and that Budinger's continued inability to finish in traffic despite his athletic ability, his deteriorating jumper and his lack of significant improvement in the majority of his game play second fiddle to optimism.

Now, with all of that said -- in admittedly harsh terms -- I can't tell you how incredibly gratifying it was to see Budinger make the game-saving play for the Rockets against the Wizards on Monday night.

At the 8:19 mark and with the Wizards in command and up by seven, Josh Howard drove at Budinger, momentarily lost his balance and attempted to toss up a jumper. But before Howard could extend his arms fully, Budinger mauled him like he had just kidnapped one of his children. He stuffed Howard so badly that it was practically a steal, and as he lobbed the ball ahead to Aaron Brooks for the fastbreak, the crowd awoke from a two-quarter-long slumber. A second later, as Courtney Lee completed the alley-oop from Brooks, Toyota Center went berzerk. The bench went nuts, too. Washington called a timeout, and suddenly, the Houston Rockets had something off of which to feed. Chase Budinger had just made an impact play -- on defense, no less -- and it was he who had produced a necessary energy spark for the Rockets to avoid a bad loss. Good. For. Him.

From there, the Rockets rode an adrenaline rush to a 100-93 comeback victory. They hit their threes in the clutch, sure, but it was Budinger's play that got them there.

I don't know what is going to happen to Chase in the coming months, as I feel I've been much quicker to label him as trade bait than most. I'm still prepared to discount him as a legitimate NBA prospect, fair or unfair as that seems. His ceiling appears to be what we saw in his rookie year. But I would be a fool not to fully appreciate how much confidence Budinger must have gained from that blocked shot on Josh Howard. It's something that finally went right for him amidst all of the disappointments.