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Wednesday December 29, 2010 1:16 PM

Rockets On Road To Self Discovery


After rocky start to the season, Rockets' chemistry coming along nicely

West Medlin
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - The arrival of the New Year also signals the arrival of New Year’s resolutions. What should I change? What will be different? What trendy, never-going-to-stick-to-it diet will I attempt?

Any resolution from the Rockets, however, will almost certainly take a different line of thought. Houston appears to have finally hit its stride, enjoying a five-game winning streak, as they prepare to play the Miami Heat, tonight.

No, instead of an extreme makeover, the Rockets are finally enjoying a rare opportunity to embrace stability for once. Change is something Houston has already experienced in mass quantities this season. Before the year began, two free agents, a lottery pick, a two-guard and one 7’6” center were all pieces that needed to be introduced and incorporated into the squad from last season. And once it started, numerous injuries forced Head Coach Rick Adelman to experiment with multiple starting lineups and rotations. Through the first 13 games, Houston had already used seven different starting lineups and the roster couldn’t have suffered more ankle sprains if they had replaced their high-tops with high-heels.

The Rockets’ play in December, however, has not only been marked by a spike in wins, it’s also seen the team play with a chemistry and identity that were missing earlier in the season. Stability often leads to the formation of solid chemistry so it’s no coincidence that the team’s improved play over the previous month coincides with the Rockets finally settling on a starting lineup. The prolonged absence of Yao, helped to “settle” the roster in a way nobody hoped for, but the silver lining here is that the team has used the same starting five for the last 18 games. The lineup of Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier, Luis Scola, and Chuck Hayes, has gone 12-6 during that stretch.

The Rockets’ recent string of wins demonstrates the tried and true maxim that success in basketball is based on far more than the individual players that make up a roster. Equally important to the quality and skill of the individual is how one individual’s talents fuse with and affect the talents of another. Chemistry: It’s hard to define, but the Rockets appear to have found theirs. The previous three games, all victories, have each been close late in the fourth quarter. That the Rockets prevailed every time showed that this club can excel in crunch time – something the team struggled to do early on.

Establishing a consistent rotation is vital to the formation of positive chemistry. It allows starters the chance to develop the cohesion necessary to strut their stuff and bench players an opportunity to get accustomed to playing in specific situations and for specific purposes. Roles are developed and over time a player’s confidence in that role solidifies. In time, each player understands how best to contribute to winning basketball. With the development of individual roles comes a collective team identity.

Houston ’s identity consists of an explosive offense relying on crisp ball movement to create open driving lanes and open 3-point looks. A healthy Kyle Lowry has been a sparkplug for the team, constantly igniting fastbreak opportunities and pushing the tempo. No longer capable of the defensive dominance displayed in years past, this Rockets team depends on a collective effort to get stops and rebounds, but thanks to their explosive offense, they no longer have to keep opponents under 90 points to win games. The poise and confidence gained from players who have embraced their roles has given Houston the edge it had been missing late in games.

Here’s a quick review of each player’s role on the team.

Kyle Lowry: Brings an attitude and fearlessness to the team. His style of play makes it easy to appreciate how hard he works out there. His numbers for December: 13.5 points, 8 assists and 2.5 steals per game. In other words, he is earning the big contract that the Rockets gave him in the offseason and looks to be worth every penny. Lowry has been the engine driving the Rockets’ offense, playing full speed baseline-to-baseline while applying non-stop pressure to opposing point guards at the other end of the floor.

Kevin Martin: Capable of carrying the scoring load for long stretches of any game – whether it’s from the 3-point line or free throw line does not matter. In fact, there may not be anyone better at drawing fouls than Martin right now. In a league that has three-point specialists, rebounding experts and lockdown defenders, Martin has managed to carve out foul-drawing as his own niche of mastery. And it’s that gift, along with his sweet, though peculiar, stroke from long-range, that has him on pace to become the first player in NBA history to lead the league in both 3-pointers and free throws made.

Luis Scola: It doesn’t matter who the Rockets are playing, it doesn’t matter who is guarding him – Scola is going to get his. He’s arguably the most underrated rebounder, heck player, in the NBA. He grabs whatever is in his area and has shown a willingness to chase down a board if necessary. With an eclectic collection of spins, fakes, and scoops from the post – you don’t have to understand it, just know that it’s probably going in. Doing whatever it takes to win, Scola’s role is providing a steady post presence, day in and day out.

Shane Battier: After slumping to begin the year, Battier has found his stroke from the perimeter and is shooting an eye-popping 50.8% from behind the arc in December. There was never any question that the team needed and expected Battier to hit the corner trey and guard the best opposing wing. He has shown that he can still do both – very well. His ability to disrupt the opponent’s best outside scorer provides stability to a defense that must play with cohesive focus in order to stop opponents.

Chuck Hayes: Battier and Hayes are the defensive anchors on the team. Hayes manages to translate workmanlike effort into workmanlike production every night. He’s the team’s best post defender and is expected to guard the opposing team’s best scoring big. Uncanny at slapping the ball out of opponent’s hands as they go up for a shot. Offensively he rebounds well, is a good passer out of the post and also a solid finisher under the basket. He is not expected to be a statistical giant. But he is expected to come up big everywhere else. More often than not, he does just that.

Bench: Jordan Hill has embraced his role as an “energy guy” and has improved his consistency in crashing both baskets whenever he is on the court. Courtney Lee has been a do-it-all type of reserve, contributing on both offense and defense, and his 3-point percentage (45.3%) has been stellar. The return of Aaron Brooks is a much welcomed change to the roster. Until he is fully healthy, look for Brooks to provide instant-offense from the second unit, while providing a potent pairing with Lowry when matchups allow, as his 13-point fourth quarter against Washington demonstrated. He is no doubt well on his way to regaining his offensive explosiveness that the team and fans have come to love. Brad Miller, meanwhile, has excelled in his “post-point” position, helping Houston’s second unit run the offense with his work out of the high-pots. Chase Budinger is still working to snap out of his sophomore slump and there’s no question the team would receive a huge boost if he can return to his rookie season form. If not, however, the newly-acquired Terrence Williams is waiting in the wings and as soon as he gets acclimated to the team’s system, he’ll no doubt benefit the club immensely with his unique combination of skills and extraordinary athleticism. And while rookies Patrick Patterson and Ish Smith have been primarily relegated to mop-up duty at this point, don't be surprised if one or both end up making their mark in the season half of the season. Look no further than the rookie seasons of both Aaron Brooks and former Rocket Carl Landry to see how early season bench warmers can suddenly become essential impact players when opportunity knocks.

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