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Luis Scola (left) played a key role in the Rockets' big win over Denver last week.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Increased playing time suiting Scola just fine

By Jeff Case, NBA.com
Posted Mar 18 2010 12:15PM

Up to the trade deadline, the differences between Carl Landry and Luis Scola in Houston were hard to distinguish. Both played roughly the same amount (Landry averaged 27.2 mpg to Scola's 31.2 mpg), scored about the same (Landry at 16.1 ppg, Scola at 15.6) while Landry was the better shotblocker and Scola was the better rebounder.

Amid all of those statistical similarites was the Rockets' quandry of who to play down the stretch. Do they go with the banging, hustling Landry? Or do they play the jump-shooting, fleet-footed Scola instead? Tired of the guessing game (and more importantly, in need of more scoring), the Rockets dealt Landry to the Kings basically for Kevin Martin. As much as Martin has benefitted from the trade, Scola is doing more now than he ever did with Landry.

Since Landry's trade, Scola has seen his scoring average jump to 20.1 ppg and has played 37 or more minutes seven times in the last 12 games. (By comparison, he played in 37 or more minutes seven times in the Rockets' first 53 games.) His play in the last five games (in which Houston is 4-1) has given the team renewed hope in a late-season surge for the playoffs.

Coach Rick Adelman has praised Scola for his energy and rebounding prowess, something that was on full display last week in a big win over the Nuggets. It was Scola who had two quick baskets as Houston cut into the Nuggets' 11-point fourth-quarter lead, Scola who got an easy fast-break bucket to give Houston a 122-121 lead and Scola who came down with a late defensive rebound that gave Aaron Brooks a free-throw attempt that helped set up the game's final thrilling sequence.

While the Rockets have a steep climb to make it back to the playoffs, the post-trade deadline time has been a vital one for Scola and the Rockets' future.

What Scola is doing has been done while the Rockets' frontline has been banged up (David Andersen), is young (Jordan Hill, Hilton Armstrong) and is missing its franchise player (Yao Ming). If Scola's last two weeks of play are any prediction of the future, it looks like the Rockets won't have to worry about their quandry at the power forward spot anymore.

G. Aaron Brooks, Rockets
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6636.020.12.65.20.90.2.440.393.811
Last Week's Rank -
Brooks (like Scola, who we'll get to in a little bit) has been scorching, averaging 24.4 ppg and shooting 50.8 percent over his last 10 games, something he can probably thank the Nuggets and Grizzlies for. In an up-tempo win over the Nuggets, he had 31 points (going 11-for-17) and nailed the game-winning pull-up jumper over Anthony Carter with 2.9 seconds left. Then came possibly his best performance of the last few weeks, when he also scored 31 on the Grizz, but did so with a seven-for-seven showing from the 3-point line that set a team record previously held by Shane Battier (he was once six-for-six). The Grizzlies didn't exactly pressure Brooks on some of those threes -- a confounding strategy considering Brooks' 3-point shooting percentage and that he's the league leader in 3-pointers (169). In fact, Brooks has hit a 3-pointer in 39 straight games, which is a Rockets record and is the longest current streak in the league. "It was a weird experience," Brooks told the Houston Chronicle. "I don't think I ever shot 7-for-7 in a game or in a pickup game. Some of the shots were off-balance. I don't know -- it felt pretty good. Shane (Battier) passed it to me, so I'm sorry. Sorry, Shane."

G. Russell Westbrook, Thunder
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6635.116.85.18.01.40.4.423.242.757
Last Week's Rank - --
Last week, Westbrook feasted on the bad teams (read: Clippers and Kings) and got himself a spot in our list. This week, he gets the nod after giving a few lessons to some rookies and outplaying an All-Star. Against the much-balleyhooed New Orleans rookie tandem of Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, Westbrook put up 17 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and two steals while holding the aforementioned guard pairing to 19 points on 4-for-17 shooting. Two games later, he burned Jazz guard Deron Williams for 30 points and 11 assists as the Thunder went up 3-0 in the season series (thus winning it) to keep the Thunder right in the mix for the West's No. 4 spot. Aside from his usual forays to the hoop, Westbrook showed off his devloping post-up game, taking the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Williams on the block and either scoring or dishing to open teammates. "It was like a wrestling match out there with those two," teammate Kevin Durant told The Oklahoman. "They went at it. I'm sure Russell is just concerned we came out with the win. This shows how much he's improved, a drastic improvement. Everybody's seen it."

C. Andrew Bogut, Bucks
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Last Week's Rank - --
There's no denying the Bucks play better when Bogut does better, and we have the stats to prove it. Milwaukee is 21-6 when he scores 17 or more points, 15-3 when he goes for 20 or more and 12-1 when he gets at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. It's not all about offense for Bogut, who is closing in on Vin Baker for seventh all-time on the team's shot-blocking list. Milwaukee is 13-2 when he swats four or more shots in a game, something that was on display last week in a win over the Jazz. Though Bogut struggled to a 5-for-15 night and had 12 boards, he had four blocks and helped turn Utah's high-energy players like Paul Millsap and Andrei Kirilenko into virtual non-factors. More than anyone on the Bucks, it's apparent that he can be trusted to make plays down the stretch. Bogut told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that GM John Hammond's move to sign him to an extension in the summer of 2008 made a big impact on his confidence. "I appreciate that," Bogut told the newspaper. "I didn't have the best couple years before that contract, but they knew I worked hard and I'm a team-first guy. They put a lot of investment in me and I respected that, but you've still got to go out there and earn it."

F. Stephen Jackson, Bobcats
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5840.521.55.23.81.90.5.428.329.780
Last Week's Rank - --
All good things must come to an end. The Bobcats' six-game win streak did on Tuesday with a disappointing loss to the Pacers. It's hard to fault Jackson for that loss, though, or for his play throughout the win streak. We mentioned his impressive game against the Lakers in last week's edition and he was equally solid in a win Sunday over the Magic, snapping Orlando's eight-game win streak. Jackson went for 28 points on 10-for-20 shooting and didn't just camp out on the perimeter, sealing the game with a turnaround jumper from the post with about a minute to go. Plus, Jackson did all of this while the Bobcats' All-Star forward Gerald Wallace sat out with a sprained left ankle. He even repeated the feat on another big stage as he had 20 points as the Wallace-less Bobcats rallied to beat the Thunder on Wednesday ... which was also the same day that Michael Jordan was officially approved as Charlotte's new owner. "We're playing like we want to be a playoff team," Jackson said. "To let that one get away last night and then bounce back against a good team like Oklahoma City tonight says a lot about this team."

F. Luis Scola, Rockets
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6631.415.78.92.00.70.3.520.250.777
Last Week's Rank - --
Simply put, Scola's play was nothing short of stunning last week. First, he had a career-best 44 points (on 20-for-25 shooting) and 12 rebounds as Houston squeaked past the Nets. More stunning than that gaudy point total were these two stats: Scola became the first Rockets player to go for that many points since Tracy McGrady scored 47 against the Jazz on Nov. 11, 2007 and his 20 field goals were the most made by a Houston player since Hakeem Olajuwon (24) in 1997. His encore performance, a 23-point, 11-rebound game against Denver, was equally solid. He got some quick scores inside and in transition to spark Houston's fourth-quarter comeback, but also got himself going throughout the game with some nice jumpers and hook shots around the basket. Much like Zach Randolph (who we've mentioned in this space before), Scola does most of his damage with footwork on offense and positioning on defense. They're vital (if underappreciated) skills in the NBA and he's doing his best to pass them on to another generation. The Houston Chronicle reports that Scola (along with defensive whiz Shane Battier) are two of the veterans working the most with rookie Jordan Hill (whom Houston acquired from New York for T-Mac). "We're just trying to help him make the least mistakes possible," Scola told the newspaper. "He has a good attitude. Just by talking to him we can eliminate some of the mistakes you usually make when you're young and come to a new team."

The Next Five

G George Hill, Spurs -- When word came out on March 8 that starting point guard Tony Parker would miss the next six weeks to recover from a broken right hand, how many of you started eulogizing the Spurs? But in typical Spurs fashion, a secondary-role player (Hill) has picked up the slack during an injury. Though Hill has been starting for the Spurs since about mid-Januray, he's had to move from shooting guard to point guard while the Spurs try to climb away from the No. 8 spot in the West. How's he done? San Antonio lost its first game with Hill as the starting point guard (March 8 vs. Cleveland), but has won four straight in fairly comfortable fashion with Hill in charge of the offense. We could quote you some stats here, but instead we'll focus on two key pieces of information. First, Hill hasn't tried to be Parker and score a ton of points, but rather tried to just keep the offense moving. "It's different just to play behind Tony than to then be asked to be the man in there, but I think he's doing a great job. We just have to help relax him and make him feel that he doesn't have to 'replace' Tony," teammate Manu Ginobili told the San Antonio Express-News. Second, he now has a clear sign that as a young player, he's turning heads around the league. Newspapers in other towns are bemoaning the hometown squad's inability to unearth a hidden gem like Hill (such as the Sun-Sentinel did last week after Miami's loss to the Spurs). Though he had an awful game against the Magic on Wednesday (two points, 1-of-5 shooting, four fouls in 30 minutes), we still think he's played well enough to earn himself a spot here.

G -- Jerry Stackhouse, Bucks: A game like Sunday night's was probably what the Bucks had in mind when they picked up Stackhouse off the waiver wire in midseason. As Milwaukee's go-to players (John Salmons, Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut) struggled through a 13-for-36 night against the Pacers and seemed to have their four-game win streak in jeopardy, Stackhouse found the fountain of youth. Stackhouse scored 20 points and nailed four 3-pointers in an otherwise quiet night and kept the Milwaukee offense moving along until Salmons and Bogut hit some big buckets down the stretch in the victory. Aside from his performance against the Pacers, Stackhouse also is giving the Bucks a little off-court edge, too, what with his recent barbs fired toward Spurs forward Richard Jefferson on his SIRIUS Satellite Radio show. His veteran play and touch of swagger gives the Bucks a little something to look forward to come playoff time.

F -- Nicolas Batum, Blazers: A few weeks ago, we spotlighted Batum and talked about how getting consistent play from the small forward spot has always been a problem for the Blazers. Over the last week or two, though, Batum has been as dependable as a well-set clock. Since his 31-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist game against Minnesota in late February, Batum has become a fairly reliable option on offense (11.9 ppg) and his defense has been solid, too. Aside from a 30-point game from Carmelo Anthony on March 7, Batum has kept his defensive matchup under wraps and was particularly solid on Sunday against Hedo Turkoglu. He held him to 14 points and pressured him into four turnovers while finishing with an efficient 22 points (on 7-for-9 shooting), with two rebounds, two blocks and a steal.

F -- Andray Blatche, Wizards: My NBA.com colleague (and reporter extraordinarie) David Aldridge touched on whether or not Blatche has become the sterotypical late-season fool's gold (the equation for which has usually been talented player plus big stats plus out-of-it team). There's a point there, considering Washington has lost nine straight games and has been beaten by 10 or more points in five of those games. Yet Blatche is doing more than just put up scoring stats (25.9 ppg during slide); he's blocking shots or getting steals (1.58 spg), he's rebounding (8.86 rpg) and he's shooting well (50.3 pct.) despite being a focus of defenses. We've liked what we've seen out of him since he took over the starting forward spot from Antawn Jamison. Coach Flip Saunders is impressed with his performance, too. "I don't think anybody's ever questioned Andray's skill level," Saunders told Aldridge. "It's been all the other factors. What you hope happens is, as I told him, the more success you have on the court, the more responsibility you hold off the court. And that kind of goes hand in hand. There's no question he's a building block."

C -- Mehmet Okur, Jazz -- Across the board, Okur's season has been one of his worst since signing with the Jazz as a free agent in 2004. He's posting near-career lows in scoring (13 ppg) and rebounding (6.8 rpg) and might have to go on a late scoring binge just to reach 200 3-pointers (he's had 200 or more in each of the last five seasons). All that being said, Okur has started to perk up in the last month and is averaging 17.6 ppg and 7.6 rpg in March (after about 12 points and seven rebounds a game the other five months this season). He helped stretch the Bucks' defense last week in Utah's loss to Milwaukee, scoring 20 points and nailing some perimeter jumpers late in the game. The Jazz will need to see more continued success from Okur if they want to make any real noise in the playoffs.

NBA.com's Five on the Rise is a weekly look at young players and resurgent veterans who have yet to reach stardom or who have regained the form of their younger day and, most of all, have made the biggest impact for their team in the last week. These rankings are just one man's opinion and are released every Thursday during the season. If you have an issue with the names on this list, or have a question or comment for Jeff Case, send him an e-mail.

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