The Houston Rockets weren’t at full strength when they lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 121-110 back on January 14, but it was still one of the worst losses of the season. Russell Westbrook sat on the first night of a back-to-back, but the Rockets still trotted out a lineup featuring James Harden, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Ben McLemore.
And with the Grizz coming into the contest playing well (they had won five straight before the Houston game) but still just 18-22 on the season at the time (the Rockets were 26-13), this looked like a scheduled win for the good guys.
But Memphis had other ideas.
They used a balanced attack of six players in double figures, while simultaneously holding the Rockets to just 43 percent shooting on the night. James Harden finished with 41, but he was just 13-37 from the field, and with no Russ around to pick up the slack, Houston continued their bad habit of playing down to their competition in an ugly defeat.
A lot has changed since then.
Memphis is in playoff contention at 28-28 (at the time of this writing) behind the stellar play of super rookie Ja Morant and nightly double-double man Jonas Valanciunas, sitting in eighth place in the Western Conference standings and holding a three-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Pocket Rockets, meanwhile, have since traded Clint Capela for Robert Covington, signed DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green, and have fully embraced a small-ball philosophy that so far is paying off.
Houston is now forcing other teams to adjust to them again, which puts them back into a position of advantage. If you can impose your style on teams, compelling them to play outside of their comfort zone in a rhythm game like basketball, you’ve already won half the battle.
The Rockets had lost that edge a little bit that had made them so successful over the last several seasons, but with a swarming, switching defense that’s jumping all of the passing lanes and some sturdy defense and shot blocking from wings-turned-quasi-big-men Covington and Tucker, Houston brings a different approach than just about anyone in the league.
They’re still raining threes from the sky, only now they’re doing it from all five positions on the court. Three will always be more than two, and with the league’s rule changes combined with a lack of dominant big men who can truly punish teams who take this approach, the Rockets have regained the edge that’s made them one of the league’s best (and most hated) teams over the last several seasons.
And this isn’t just iso ball either. Any Houston-haters out there haven’t been paying attention. The improved floor spacing has opened up the court in sublime ways, and the Rockets are moving the ball, getting guys involved, and having a lot of fun doing it. Of course, it never hurts to have two of the best players on the planet as your focal point.
Credit to Coach D'Antoni and Coach Gunning for this ATO. Play of the game. When Westbrook in corner, Gobert has responsibility of defending him AND helping at rim. Houston clears the side and runs 1/2 action, Houston's go-to. Harden clears mid-range. No help. Smart design/counter pic.twitter.com/dlyLHViUzr— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) February 23, 2020
Russell Westbrook on his interaction with a fan before alley-oop: “Before the oop, the guy was telling me ‘Shoot the 3, shoot the 3, Gobert is the best defensive player in the league’. I said ‘Okay, okay, okay’...While he was talking, I just went backdoor” pic.twitter.com/w6KXEP1ToX— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) February 23, 2020
The Rockets appear to be a team coming together at the right time, and they’re matching up against a division rival with a currently 1-1 tied season series, in a game that suddenly has playoff implications for both squads, which has upped the importance of this contest on the ledger.
The Rockets are creeping ever so closer to the number two seed in the West, and while the Grizz have a long shot to move up to seventh, they could increase their hold on a playoff spot with win, and Memphis in the postseason is something that seemed so unlikely the last time these two teams met.
Memphis will be without Jaren Jackson Jr., who is out with a knee injury, but this is suddenly a big game, and you have the chance to be there. If you decide to go, grab a ticket from Stubhub using our exclusive The Dream Shake ticket link. Your writers would appreciate it!
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