Last year, the first time the Rockets played the Mavericks in Houston, I thought we were going to lose. I thought Dwight Howard being on the bench was a huge deal. I thought James Harden would have a bad night. I thought Chandler Parsons would erupt.
Of course, we didn't lose thanks to some late game heroics, namely an and-one by James Harden on Chandler Parsons that gave Houston the lead with just under 30 seconds to play. It was a close game, and a fun one to watch, but the main thing I took out of that game was something I said to my dad about midway through the second quarter.
"That guy, right there," I said, pointing at Donatas Motiejunas as he dropped a rebound that went through his hands, "I want him out of the league."
That was the 13th game of the season, and I really, really meant what I said. D-Mo, to me, was not a threat on offense. He was a liability on defense. And, for all his height, he couldn't grab a rebound against what is probably my least favorite team in the league in the second quarter of the 13th game of the season. I was completely done with him.
Then, at Game 72, Motiejunas got hurt, and was out for the rest of the Rockets' season, no matter how long it went on. And I was devastated. Not only had D-Mo become one of the better players on paper, he was one of the better players to watch. He had been a real contributor, sure, but his contributions never ceased to be surprising for some reason. He went from being a guy who couldn't grab a rebound to a guy who could do stuff like this:
His passing was great. His footwork in the post was amazing. His shot was reliable, and he could make his own, if need be, and I don't think we would've known that were it not for the most bizarre game of the Rockets' season in Minnesota. When James Harden fouled out, and Dwight remained on the bench, Motiejunas became the offensive weapon. He was the only guy on the floor who could dribble for an extended period of time and not make me nervous during the end of that game. We were hanging by a thread, and that thread was Donatas. That night he scored 13 points and had 8 rebounds. He made almost all his free throws and 50% of his shots. I was on board. I was a believer. And 6 games before, I wanted him gone.
In the 2014-2015 season, D-Mo averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds per game, both significantly higher than his averages from the year before. This makes sense, though, seeing as his minutes almost doubled from 15.4 per game to 28.7. In the absence of Dwight Howard, Motiejunas’ role was forced into expansion, and he accepted this role with flying colors. He was able to space the floor with his decent three point shooting, and his ability to score in the post through a surprisingly large arsenal of moves was truly something to behold, and it got him the unfortunate nickname of "Captain Hook" from Matt Bullard.
I am a little embarrassed by how often I have searched "Donatas Motiejunas highlights" on YouTube, especially considering I wanted him back in Europe at the beginning of the season. However, his improvement from Year 2 to Year 3 is certainly one of the biggest reasons the Rockets were able to remain so good last year in the midst of all those injuries.
Of course, then he got injured, and, like I said, I was devastated. Having (what I would argue) the second most reliable scoring option on the bench only 10 games before the playoffs hurt. Not only that, but he was a starter, and depending on which Rockets fan you asked that was one of the bigger reasons the Rockets season ended when it did. I'm not sure how much I buy into that argument (though D-Mo did play consistently well against Golden State), but I do think it hurt. It would be very easy to speculate (as we all have) about the fate of the Rockets season were they to remain fully healthy through the playoffs. But, injuries are, unfortunately, a part of the game, and it was a shame Donatas had to help us learn that.
To put into context what I expect out of Donatas Motiejunas in the upcoming season, I'll say this: I am currently setting aside some money to buy a Clutch City alternate jersey with his name on the back. I'm glad D-Mo and I could work our issues out, but more than that I am glad that he has grown as a player the way he has. He went from being the stereotypical soft, but tall European NBA player to the stereotypical crafty, and tall European NBA player, and he did so when he was 24. He's on contract with the Rockets for one more season, and I genuinely hope that no one else notices just how good he is during next year's free agency so he can stay in Houston for less money than he deserves (come to think of it, maybe I should start looking into other players' jerseys...).
Motiejunas is a fun player, and I hope he comes back from his injury as the same fun player he was before, and I hope he comes back after next season, because I expect he will be important to the team this season. If we could all just find some wood to knock on now, I think it would be helpful.