This is a slightly odd game to talk about for several reasons.
One, I’m not recapping a loss. This is a relief, after the Rockets run of wins. There have been too many loss recaps in my NBA life over the past few seasons. That’s really all that needs to be said about that. It’s great that this Rockets team defends all the time, fights hard, and seems to believe they can win, even on an off night.
Two, there was a late Rockets comeback, and some exciting late game scoring and defense.
Three, this inaugural in-season tournament contest with the New Orleans Pelicans had a every chance of being a great game. It might have been, too, if referee Tyler Ford had let that game happen. Instead he inflicted a baffling and disjointed game on the rowdy and enthusiastic Toyota Center crowd.
I always notice when Ford referees a game, whether it involves the Rockets or not, because he has Scottie Foster’s knack of putting himself at the center of things. He typically invites further attention by calling a mostly incomprehensible contest, with little consistency even from quarter to quarter. He’ll get a challenge absolutely correct, with a clear explanation, but miss an obvious goaltend late in the game. He seems to lash out at players when they become frustrated with his incoherent approach to a refereeing a game.
This contest was thus a disjointed struggle, where both teams played hard, and could each feel hard done by in some respects.
The game started with a flurry of whistles on the Rockets, which seemed to throw the team off. Zion Williamson, making a rare appearance on an NBA court, started off, if not hot, then strangely well-compensated on court, as off, for dribbling into Dillon Brooks and others and whipping his head back. At one point Zion’s free throw attempts were on pace with his minutes, which, if you think about a guy playing 34 minutes, is really a lot of attempts. Fortunately this pace cooled off, as the Rockets more or less backed off Williamson and he scored at will during the first quarter.
The Rockets went down 31-26 in the first, as Brooks exited the game, and the Rockets began what would be a generally bad shooting night.
The second quarter brought a change in approach to the game, or perhaps “better defense” from the Rockets, though it’s hard to see what changed about it. The Rockets on the strength of their defense, and aggressive transition scoring turned the game around. The home team won the quarter 28-17, and it could have been more, without a somewhat lucky late flurry of makes from the Pelicans. Some of that can be attributed to a loss of focus, or simply tiredness, but it would turn out to be a similar pattern in the third quarter.
In the third quarter New Orleans came out hot, the weird whistle was back, and the Rockets began chirping at the refs, which eventually lead to Jae’Sean Tate’s ejection by Tyler Ford on a second technical. As the Rockets haven’t really done much of that sort of complaining all season, including Dillon Brooks (who also got a tech), it felt like they had a point.
NOLA won that quarter convincingly 31-16 on a burst of good play from Brandon Ingram, a continued good scoring night from Zion who showed the power, speed and shooting touch that got people excited five years ago, and some shockingly bad offense from the Rockets, who missed an astonishing number of close in shots on the night.
The Pelicans lead 79-70 at the end of three, and it looked like the Rockets were heading for defeat as the fourth quarter started in much the same way. But the Rockets kept at it, never lost focus, and despite some real shooting woes, managed to keep the game within reach.
Late in the fourth Alperen Sengun, Jalen Green, and Fred Van Vleet went on the attack, and Dillon Brooks was able to defend, and even score.
The Rockets were down 100-95 with 1:56 left in the game, and the odds tracker seemed quite confident in a Pelicans win, especially after Alperen Sengun missed two free throws at 1:44 remaining. Then Fred VanVleet struck. Two made threes saw the Rockets grab a tenuous 101-100 lead with 47 seconds remaining. Rugged Rocket defense held the Pelicans scoreless, and Fred Van Vleet added two clutch free throws to extend the lead to three points. Brandon Ingram had a chance to tie, with 15 seconds left, but clanked the three point shot.
This should have been the end of the game, on a Rockets rebound. Tyler Ford was not content having ejected Tate, and may have been feeling uninvolved. He made a strange call on the Rockets on the rebound off Ingram’s miss. Larry Nance Jr somehow missed the first, and made the second free throw, and despite Jalen Green only making one of two free throws on the deliberate foul, the Rockets saw the game home.
In the end, the Rockets are undefeated in group play in the In Season Tournament, which may end up being a lot of fun for Rockets fans.
This is not the sort of game the Rockets would have won last season. The defense first approach may have certain drawbacks, but in its favor, if the Rockets aren’t shooting well, and tonight they didn’t, good defense makes a win possible nonetheless. The Pelicans, despite possible Rocket fans’ annoyance, barely broke 100 points. So the Rockets didn’t need their offense to sparkle to win it.
Certainly the Rockets offense could stand to improve, because when it looks bad, it looks really bad. The defense on the other hand, simply because the Rockets almost always have two to three good defenders on the court, and put in the effort, never rests.
This was an encouraging a Rockets win as I can remember. Maybe the three bleak seasons are truly at an end?
So far, so good.
PS - The NBA world is finally noticing that yes, Alperen Sengun is an emerging star.
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