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Thursday October 19, 2006 1:28 PM


Spread Offense


The Rockets' three-point shooting appears improved with new talent




Damien Pierce
Rockets.com Staff Writer


HOUSTON -- After spending less than two weeks on the floor with shooting sensation Steve Novak, Rockets point guard Rafer Alston didn't have any trouble selecting a new nickname for the rookie.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet "Instant Assist."

"That's him," Alston said with a laugh before Wednesday night's win over Milwaukee. "Sometimes, in the preseason, I throw it to him for an open look and he pump-fakes. I've got to say to him, 'please don't pump-fake that.' He just needs to shoot it if he's open."

So do the rest of Houston's sharpshooters.



The Rockets would obviously still like to see Alston pick up the bulk of his assists going to Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady, but the organization is certainly beginning to believe it picked up enough shooting in the off-season for the point guard to boost his assist numbers 23-plus feet from the basket.

Houston, which finished 27th in the NBA in three-point shooting last season, is knocking down 38 percent of its three-point attempts in the preseason. That's good enough for fifth in the league and it's also about five percentage points higher than last year's 33.2 percent clip.

The numbers are even more impressive when considering that the team's 41 three-pointers made are second only to the typically hot-shooting Phoenix Suns.

Sure, those stats are coming in the preseason. But after failing to capitalize on open looks last season, the Rockets collected a bushel of sharpshooters in the off-season to turn things around and they're seeing results midway through the preseason.

Houston (3-1) has been spreading the floor with its shooters, opening up the paint for Yao in the post and McGrady on the drive.

"We've got a lot of guys that can shoot the ball now," Rockets guard Luther Head said. "Yao and Tracy always attract two players so they are getting guys like myself free. We have to have confidence in ourselves to knock that shot down and we're doing that so far."

Besides returning Head, the Rockets acquired Shane Battier, Casey Jacobsen, John Lucas, Scott Padgett, Kirk Snyder and Novak prior to training camp in an effort to find some perimeter scoring.

While some of those names might not make the team, the majority of the group hasn't disappointed.

Head is shooting 44 percent from three-point range, Snyder is making 50 percent and Novak made five-of-six attempts from beyond the arc for 17 points in Wednesday's 111-97 win over Milwaukee. The rookie is also shooting 50 percent from three-point range in the preseason.

Among the group, Novak has drawn most of the rave reviews for his effortless form and shooting touch. McGrady has called the rookie, "the best shooter" he has ever seen, and Alston's nickname for Novak certainly shouldn't go unnoticed.

The 6-foot-10 forward could be working his way into the Rockets' rotation because of his range, but his ability to be effective on the defensive end will ultimately dictate how much he plays.

"When he raises up to shoot, he looks great," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "He's a great shooter. He's a very willing worker and he was extremely well coached in college, which helped him start to overcome his limitations athletically. He's done OK. But as a second-round pick, it's a long process and he has a number of things he needs to improve."

With Yao and McGrady commanding so much attention on the defensive end, however, the Rockets certainly need shooters on the floor.

Houston didn't make teams pay for doubling one of their two stars last season and continued to struggle from the field when McGrady and Yao were injured.

Since the Rockets' pair of All-Stars are back in the lineup, the team's other players will be getting plenty of open looks on the perimeter, possibly against zone defenses designed to force Houston to shoot.

The Rockets' retooled roster is at least built to beat that now.

"There's no question this is their team," Novak said of Yao and McGrady. "If I'm able to just hit open shots and spread defenses, I'm helping those guys. And they're helping me. When Yao is inside demanding a double team and Tracy is flying all over the court, that makes my job really easy."

Others around the league have noticed. After Wednesday's game, Milwaukee sharpshooter Michael Redd said he was impressed with Houston's inside-out game. The Rockets made 14 three-pointers against the Bucks and Yao had 22 points inside.

"I really like what coach Van Gundy has done with this Houston team," Redd said. "He has brought in a lot of shooters to play around Tracy and Yao is emerging as one of the best players in the league. It is up to them as to how far they will go."

Alston agrees.

"Last year, we just weren't hitting those shots," Alston said. "We had guys who could make those shots, but we weren't making them. Now, we've got guys that can hit shots from the moment they step in the gym. We're going to get those same shots so when they kick the ball out it's just a matter of making the shot."

And watching his assists go up.