Just as the Houston Rockets were finally progressing to full health after the recent return of big man Donatas Motiejunas to the floor, the ever present injury-bug once again returned to cast it's shadow over the team.
Whether through hex (Lil B? Please. This injury thing has been going on a lot longer than Lil B's been relevant) or just unmitigated bad luck, the Rockets are once again faced with the prospect of playing without one of their key rotation members, as starting small forward Trevor Ariza went down with a back injury in last night's 110-105 loss to the New Jersey Nets.
X-rays on Ariza thankfully came back negative, but it sounds like he's dealing with a deep back bruise, and he certainly looked in a lot of pain last night lying on the hardwood.
Ariza is listed as "doubtful" for tonight's game against the Wizards, but not only is that most certainly "out," don't be surprised if Ariza misses additional time after tonight as well. This ends Ariza's two-year plus consecutive games streak.
If Trevor Ariza misses tonight's game it will end his consecutive game streak at 173. He last missed a game Nov. 23, 2013.— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) December 9, 2015
Though Ariza has, like most of the squad, struggled this season with his shooting and his defense (37.8 percent shooting from the field and a negative defensive plus-minus for the first time in his career), also like most of the squad, he was coming on of late, knocking down 44.6 percent of his shots, including 39.4 percent from deep over the last 7 games and tightening up his D to a positive plus-minus over the same span.
The team seemed to be gradually settling in and getting more comfortable, despite last night's loss, and losing such a critical piece of the rotation will be hard if Ariza misses any extended time. Ariza's 34.5 minutes per game are second on the team to James Harden, and a combination of players will be asked to step up in Ariza's stead.
Marcus Thornton will be asked to play additional minutes. He stepped up to the tune of 32 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in 26 minutes in last night's loss, and though he can quickly pour in points when hot, he's also extremely streaky and prone to extensive cold streaks. The Rockets also lose substantial defensive flexibility when Thornton replaces Ariza, though Thornton has come a bit better than advertised in that department.
Corey Brewer will also be asked to take on more responsibility. As we all know, Brewer's struggled mightily in all facets this season, though he did come through with 22 points on 9-16 shooting, including 4-8 from deep, to go along with 3 steals in 34 big minutes once Ariza went down. Hopefully, Brew's nice game on both ends is the first glimmer of a rebound for him, as he'll be asked to continue to play heavy time as long as Ariza is out.
The Rockets have also recalled K.J. McDaniels from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers today for additional depth according to the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. McDaniels is expected to be available for tonight's game.
The Vipers are in Reno tonight so it will be a busy travel day of K.J. McDaniels. He's expected to arrive in time for tongiht's game in D.C.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) December 9, 2015
McDaniels has had very little time on the court this season, but Ariza's injury opens up the door for bench minutes for the athletic wingman. He's been bad offensively in his limited time on court with the Rockets, shooting just 20 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from three, but his enthusiastic defense could help replace some of Ariza's matchup flexibility if the starting swingman is to miss extended time.
While the Rockets are still in desperate need of some continuity, it's important to not rush Ariza back, as a bad back bruise can be limiting for some time and also easily re-aggravated. The Rockets prepared for just this occasion by retaining Brewer and McDaniels in the offseason and bringing aboard Thornton.
The depth at the three has the correct skill set to spackle the huge hole Ariza leaves in the lineup. It's simply up to those players to perform up to expectations.
After all, they're on the team to take advantage of exactly these types of situations.