Ben McLemore played 24 minutes off the bench during the Houston Rockets’ 119-104 scrimmage victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. He scored 26 points while shooting an efficient 8-for-10 from the field, 6-for-7 from behind the arc. That same game, Jeff Green registered 18 points in 28 minutes, as he came off the pine. By night’s end, the Rockets finished the game with 58 points contributed by their second unit.
Set to resume the season on Friday, Houston will enter the restart with their best opportunity to capture that elusive NBA championship. For the first time in their respective careers, James Harden and Russell Westbrook will have had a quality amount of rest as they prepare to carry an abundance of the minutes alongside P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington.
But unlike in years prior, Mike D’Antoni is expected to use his bench a bit more this post-season. During a conversation with Kelly Iko of The Athletic in June, Houston’s head coach explained that using a nine-man rotation may give the Rockets their best chance of winning a championship in what will be an abnormal post-season in Orlando, FL. While his comments should have always been his mindset, D’Antoni picked the best time to adjust his playoff rotation in what could be his most trustworthy second unit to date.
“To get that second unit to function as they did on Sunday is a big key for us. Our first unit has been good, but if we can add another spark with the guys coming off the bench, we would like to keep that going forward. It’s a big part of winning and losing.” — D’Antoni
What can make the Rockets a revered bench unit is the instant offense they can provide. During their three-game scrimmage, Houston’s second unit averaged 43.3 points, demonstrating they have several players who can come in and light up the scoreboard. In each contest, the Rockets had at least one player who scored in double figures off the bench.
Daniel House Jr. posted 18 points during the Rockets’ first scrimmage against the Raptors and averaged 11.3 points for the preseason. Perhaps the Houston native is their most versatile second-unit scorer in terms of someone who can collect buckets both inside and out. But Houston’s second unit features arguably the team’s most efficient shooter.
McLemore’s 26 point outburst against the Grizzlies was far from a fluke performance. All season McLemore has showcased the capability to knock down shots, which has contributed greatly to his success. He has recorded multiple 20-plus performances during the regular season and became Houston’s most superior three-point shooter — as he shot a team-best 40 percent from deep.
McLemore is the quintessential role player the Rockets demand from their non-star-studded backcourt. He can shoot the three. He hustles. And did I say he can shoot the three? Despite his lack of defense, the sharpshooting prodigy from Kansas has been the most compelling bench player for the Rockets prior to the postponement. As the season resumes, that title may go to Jeff Green.
“I knew he [Green] was more than capable of helping us. That was one of the reasons we reached out. He’s able to handle the basketball, he’s able to knock down shots, he’s pretty solid on defense, so he fits into what we’re doing.” — James Harden
McLemore was not the only reserve who lit Memphis up Sunday night. Green put on a show against his former team in recording 18 points in 28 minutes off the bench. As a player who only played in 10 games before March 11, the Rockets’ three-game scrimmage allowed Green to showcase his collection of skills with D’Antoni securing his spot in the rotation heading into the restart.
Although he provides the same intangibles as House and McLemore — given his ability to space the floor — Green’s on-court presence grants the Rockets with something a bit more than his counterparts.
During the scrimmages, Green has ingrained himself as Houston’s most reliable defensive player off the bench. He does a substantial job staying in front of the opposition despite his lack of his lateral quickness. Green’s most significant aspect on the defensive end is his ability to use his 6’8” stature to prevent easy buckets around the basket.
“He [Green] is going to play. He’s a heck of a basketball player. He can make shots and he knows how to play. The last three weeks since we have been practicing, he has been great.” — D’Antoni
Before the league’s suspension, the Rockets relied heavily upon the production from their starters, as they ranked 28th in bench points (28.0 PPG) for the season. The subpar performances they once showcased seem like a problem of the past given how well Green, House, and McLemore have played during the three-game scrimmage.
Unfortunately, the Rockets’ bench unit may take a minor setback due to the injury of Eric Gordon. The former Sixth Man of the Year winner sustained an ankle injury on Tuesday and is expected to miss two weeks. According to D’Antoni, House will replace the injured Gordon in the starting lineup.
Although they will be losing a percentage of their offensive capability, the Rockets’ second unit may become their best defensive rotation with DeMarre Carroll also projected to receive added minutes in Gordon’s absence. The possibilities D’Antoni has to fill in the vacant position due to Gordon’s injury is just another example of how dangerous Houston’s second unit has become as the NBA restart looms.