The Houston Rockets are off to a 2-0 start on the heels of two blowouts, with James Harden and Dwight Howard leading the way. Going into the season, Houston's bench was its biggest question mark, as Kevin McHale was working in an entirely different unit off the pine.
In the Rockets first two victories, the bench hasn't blown anyone away, but with a starting lineup that appears as potent as ever offensively and improved defensively, all the second unit has to do is play even with their opponent. So far, they've been able to do that.
McHale has chosen Jason Terry as his backup 2, with Harden running the point alongside him with the second unit. In the Jazz game, McHale went to Isaiah Canaan for a spell at the 1, so it wouldn't be surprising if he continued to experiment with the backup guard spots or mixed and matched them by matchup.
Kostas Papanikolaou, or, as he's affectionately known around these parts, Big Papa, has proven to be a versatile reserve thus far, sliding over to the 4 spot in small-ball lineups, while also backing up Trevor Ariza at small forward. Big Papa struggled with his shot against the Lakers, but really found his stroke against the
Jizz Jazz, going 4-6 from distance for 12 points (even with the Jazz announcers were calling him Motiejunas the entire second quarter).
Big Papa is a complete player, and his abilities as a passer will really help remedy Houston's biggest offensive problem (the ball getting sticky), which is brought about by their reliance on isolation sets. The Rockets can be an effective isolation team, especially given the fact that James Harden is such a good passer (which no one gives him credit for), but they need guys who can keep the ball moving once space is created while also being able to hit the long ball, and Big Papa looks like a guy who can do that. Yeah, his foot speed is a problem on defense, but it's not at the point where backup 3s will be lighting him up on a nightly basis.
In the frontcourt, Donatas Motiejunas has played a smaller role than expected, playing just 25 combined minutes in the first two games. D-Mo's role will be determined by three things:
1. Terrence Jones' effectiveness and foul trouble
3. D-Mo's demeanor and activity
Sometimes D-Mo comes out with obvious aggression, sprinting down the floor and trying to pin guys inside in transition or trailing the play and looking for the kick-out 3. This is the D-Mo we see and say, "This guy has the tools and smarts to be a stud," but we only see that D-Mo half the time (if that). He has the potential to push Jones for playing time, but Jones has outperformed him every step of the way early in their careers. This is D-Mo's year to put up or shut up.
Tarik Black has been backing up Dwight Howard at the 5, with Joey Dorsey picking his nose on the sideline. Let's be honest: Black isn't too good. He can't shoot a lick, he struggles to finish at the rim and his rebounding instincts are just so/so. To be fair, he has only played two games in the NBA. On a positive note, I will say that he knows exactly what he is: a bruiser. He's committed more fouls (five) than points scored (four) in the first two games, but he has held his own in the paint, even if he is a below average rim protector.
Harden has been spending a fair amount of time with the second unit, and he's been effective with them because of his improved motor. Instead of spending half his trips down the floor standing flat-footed five feet off the three-point line on the wing, he's been attacking the rim every chance he gets and staying active away from the ball. The Beard's motor, on both sides of the ball, has been the biggest bright spot in these first two games, and if he can keep this up, he's going to sneak his way into MVP consideration.
All signs point to Houston's bench, which writers across the country were very skeptical of going into the season, being a competent unit. As long as the starters can stay healthy and keep the second-string guys out of the starting lineup, Houston's bench could turn into a positive for this team.
The Rockets will try to stay perfect Saturday night in their home opener against the Boston Celtics.