The Houston Rockets came into Friday night's matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans riding a four-game winning streak. For the last two days, Alperen Sengun's status was in doubt, but we got the word right before the start of the game that he would indeed play. The Pelicans got back Zion Willamson after he missed his prior game due to personal reasons.
Watching the game from press row, here are the three things that stood out to me in the Rockets’ 104-101 win.
Rockets didn't start as fast but still found a way to win
During the Rockets' winning streak (specifically the last three games), they got off to fast starts and held double-digit leads early. In their previous game vs. the Lakers, the Rockets put the game away in the first half and coasted in the second half.
Friday night vs. the Pelicans, Houston started slowly as they trailed by eight midway through the first quarter. The Rockets came out sluggish, and no one outside of Jalen Green and Sengun could make a shot.
The Rockets, however, started to get it going, only trailing by five despite shooting only 33 percent from the field, while the Pelicans shot over 70 percent. Rockets slowly started to chip away at the Pelicans lead, outscoring the Pelicans by nine in the second quarter to take a four-point lead into the half.
The Rockets, as they have the entire winning streak, imposed their will on the Pelicans to eventually close them out and get the win.
Alperen Sengun is making winning plays on offense and defense
There was a time when Sengun would not finish a close game because his defense was viewed as a weak point of his game. It was even some concern heading into this season that the defensive-minded Ime Udoka may take Sengun out in certain situations, but that hasn't happened this season.
Last night, Sengun showed that he can not only take over the game offensively like he has many times but also change the game defensively. After he missed two late crucial free throws, Sengun turned into a madman on the defensive end.
On consecutive possessions, Sengun dove on the floor for loose balls, got his hands up, knocked away a pass that ended up in the Rockets hand, and had a massive block on Jonas. Coach Udoka spoke about Sengun's defense.
"Shows his buy-in getting better game by game," Udoka continued, saying, "He is a gifted offensive guy that bought in on that end."
Sengun has shown that he is not a player you have to hide on the defensive end, and not only did he hold his own, but he was the difference Friday night on the defensive end.
Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks have been worth every cent
The narrative around the Rockets offseason was that they overspent for players who are good but aren't going to make a huge impact. Well, during this winning streak and all of the offseason leading into the season VanVleet’s and Brooks’ leadership has been their most significant impact.
Last night, Brooks was in foul trouble for most of the game. Playing with five fouls in the fourth, Brooks did not get his sixth foul and shut down Brandon Ingram, who the Rockets couldn't stop most of the night. Brooks also forced an offensive foul as he, like Sengun, was all over the court on the defensive end.
VanVleet did his damage on the offensive end. He scored 10 of his 20 in the fourth, including two huge threes with under a 1:14 left that put the Rockets ahead for good. VanVleet leadership was on full display last night and has been all season, something Sengun spoke about last night after the game. I asked him about having vets like VanVleet and Dillon on the team.
I asked Alperen about having vets like Dillon and Fred— Lachard Binkley (@BinkleyHoops) November 11, 2023
“Fred, Jeff and Dillon are on our a**” pic.twitter.com/cfcZYYQt7Q
For any Rockets fans who have watched this team over the years, the number one complaint has been leadership or lack thereof. Sengun saying that Fred, Dillon and Jeff are constantly on them and helping fix their mistakes is something you can't quantify in dollar amounts. That type of leadership is the difference between a team fighting for a playoff spot and a team fighting for a high draft pick.
Dillon Brooks also spoke on how the young guys are accepting their leadership.
I asked Dillon about Alperen saying they stay on them when the young guys make mistakes— Lachard Binkley (@BinkleyHoops) November 11, 2023
“They’re sponges willing to learn you know they are sick of losing” pic.twitter.com/5mRnpzytFx
The fact that he said they are willing to listen to what they have to say and apply it says a lot about the mentality of this team compared to last season. The Rockets expect to win every game they play instead of just hoping like in the past, and the leadership from the vets and Coach Udoka has a lot to do with that.