Game Day: Rockets at Hawks

Analysis and observations from Houston's 83-80 loss to the Atlanta Hawks
by Jason Friedman Writer/Reporter


ATLANTA - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Atlanta Hawks:


- With Chandler Parsons out for the second straight game due to injury, the Rockets began the game with Ronnie Brewer drawing the Kyle Korver assignment while Dwight Howard defended Paul Millsap and Terrence Jones took care of Pero Antic. That trio looked awfully good on the defensive end in the early going as Houston finally put an end to its two-week stretch of sluggish starts by sprinting out to an 11-0 lead in the opening minutes. The key to that blitz: Houston’s defense was on point and engaged, forcing the Hawks to start 0-for-7 from the field, including a 0-for-5 mark from beyond the arc. Howard absolutely took ownership of the paint on both ends of the floor, while James Harden scored with ease from the wings. 

And though the Rockets cooled off as the period went on, primarily due to five turnovers, Houston’s half-court D remained exceptional. Atlanta ended the quarter 5-of-22 from the field and 0-for-8 from 3 as the Rockets took an 18-10 lead to the second period.

Rockets/Hawks Gallery

- An observation gleaned from years of watching Aaron Brooks: The diminutive guard almost always camps out several feet behind the arc, prompting some defenders to back off and give him room while (erroneously) believing that he’s too far away from the hoop to be a threat to shoot. As Rockets fans know, AB has deep range and can stroke those 26-footers with ease, just as he did while starting the second quarter with a swish from way beyond the arc.

- While Houston’s half-court defense was largely excellent in the first half, its transition D was not for the faint of heart and it seemed as if Atlanta’s Mike Scott was the happy beneficiary every time. Scott hit halftime 6-of-8 from the field for 12 points – the vast majority of which came on monster fast break jams while Rockets defenders lagged well behind the play.

- After turning the ball over five times in the first quarter, the Rockets didn’t cough up the ball a single time in the second, and yet ... the Hawks' closed the period with an 11-4 run to cut Houston’s lead to a measly two points at halftime. At the time it felt like a major missed opportunity for a Rockets team that dominated for large stretches yet came away with so relatively little to show for it.

- Houston’s transition defense simply killed the club tonight. Every time the Rockets built up a bit of a cushion and seemed like they might pull away, the Hawks would get a couple easy buckets on the break to get right back into it and, eventually, lay claim to the lead. Houston’s turnover bug returned to bite them in second half, simultaneously rendering the Rockets’ offense dormant in the third period while giving Atlanta’s offense the boost it needed to get over the hump. Atlanta finished with 20 fast break points tonight. It felt like 40.

Paul Millsap, meanwhile, erupted in the third quarter, scoring 12 of his team-high 20 points as the Hawks took a 5-point lead to the final frame.

- What a weird game. Can’t recall a contest that saw one same team look downright dominant on defense in the half-court while appearing so inept in transition. Fortunately for the Rockets, they finally put an end to the Hawks’ fast breaking ways in the fourth quarter and Atlanta’s offense shriveled on the vine in short order. Houston’s recipe for success was, appropriately enough, a strange one as the Rockets employed a super small-ball lineup that had Harden at power forward to match up with Millsap while Brooks and Jeremy Lin handled back-court duties with Francisco Garcia on the wing and Howard as the only legit big on the floor. That rarely-used quintet produced a 9-0 run that got Houston back in front as the Hawks went more than six minutes without scoring.

- Now for the unfortunate part: Atlanta answered that run with one of their own to grab the lead for good. Houston turned the ball over a whopping 8 times in the fourth quarter, with the final one serving as a backbreaker when a bit of miscommunication prompted Aaron Brooks to throw the ball away with 18 seconds left and his team down one. It became a free throw affair from that point forward and Kyle Korver didn’t miss a single one.

Houston’s last hope came when Jeremy Lin drained what at first blush seemed to be a game-tying corner trey, only for review to confirm that his toe was on the line, meaning the shot was just a 2, leaving the Rockets an agonizing point short.

“I didn’t know I was on the line,” Lin said afterward when asked about the play. “When (Harden) drove, in my mind I thought he was going to shoot it so I was going to try to go anywhere near for an offensive rebound.”

- Next up for Houston: a date with the Washington Wizards Saturday night.



(Opening Statement)

“They outran us (tonight) in transition. (Mike) Scott got out and got a lot of early stuff. We didn’t get matched up well in transition, and that hurt us a few times. We couldn’t make shots and couldn’t get the ball where we wanted it on the offensive end. They would deny something and we didn’t make an adjustment with the dribble and improve our angle. It was just one of those games where we were just stuck in the mud offensively. It started off with a good flow, but then after that we just couldn’t get anything going.”

(On miscommunication between Aaron Brooks and Dwight Howard)

“We work (on our passing), but you have to be able to deliver the ball.”


(On tonight’s game)

“I think (the Hawks) earned it. I think they took the game in the second half with how they played on defense. Both teams played really hard tonight. I don’t think either team gave anything. We knew it was going to be a long game. They had a ten-point first quarter, which we were happy about, but we couldn’t score the ball either. The game really never got out of hand in either direction.”

(On offensive struggles)

“I don’t really know what’s wrong. The last three games have been a struggle. It seems like we’re working so hard for everything. Nothing comes easy. I’m not sure what it is. I’ll probably take a look at it tonight and see what I can do to better control tempo, or to get the looks or the lineups or the plays that we need to get, because right now it’s just too hard.”


(On miscommunication with Aaron Brooks)

“(That’s) just something we have to work on in practice and get better at it. It’s not an issue. Guys just have to work on it in practice. It’s not an issue. We’ll get better.”

(On Hawks’ transition offense)

“When we shoot long shots and they get rebounds, it gives them an opportunity to run and get out, and that’s where they capitalized tonight, getting out and running. (Mike Scott) came out in the first half and had 12 points off the bench, just by running.”

Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer

(On the game)

“I think the group is really starting to trust each other defensively. The competitiveness that they’re putting out there, it starts on the defensive end of the court. There were some examples of guys tonight making rotations, making v-backs (cuts) difficult, hard situations. It’s just good to see that trust being built up. If we continue to do that, there are stretches when the offense can play off the defense and get a little bit of rhythm, and get some good looks and some good opportunities. There were times when everything kind of slowed down and it was kind of a slugfest for both teams tonight. I’m just really happy with the defensive effort. They’re a heck of an offensive team. They’re a heck of a scoring team. I think we probably just caught them on a little bit of an off night. But I think there was some good stuff for us defensively.”

(On overcoming the 11-0 deficit)

“I should’ve mentioned in the opening that the bench tonight was really excellent. We started out slow. Then Mike (Scott) came into the game and it was fortuitous. Paul picks up a couple of fouls and Mike comes in. He was just really committed to running the court tonight. I think we beat them in transition a couple of times, and got a couple of easy baskets. We got a little bit of confidence going off of Mike’s running. Elton Brand comes in with 11 rebounds. Lou Williams with eight assists and no turnovers. The guys off the bench … Shelvin was just rock steady. I thought the bench was what allowed us to kind of weather that early difficult time.”

Kyle Korver

(On the bench)

“Mike Scott came in and gave us a huge lift. We couldn’t get anything going. We’ve got to go back and watch the film again. There wasn’t any space for anyone to get a good shot. We’re still a work in progress without Al. But our guys kept on fighting. Different guys stepped up. We got a good win.”

(On the importance of tonight’s win)

“We have a whole bunch of hard games coming up. We can’t feel too good about ourselves right now. Starting Sunday in Memphis, going on the road, and all this travel, then come back and we have Miami. It’s not going to be easy. Then we have San Antonio. We have a tough month. It’s going to be a good challenge. We’ve just got to keep getting better.”

Mike Scott

(On providing a spark)

“I just took the seal off the basket. Shots weren’t falling in. We just couldn’t buy one. I just had to come in with a lot of energy and fire things up.”

(On rebounding from an 11-0 deficit)

“We just wanted to keep the ball moving, keep the intensity up, keep the pressure up, just keep the flow up. It’s a long game. It’s two halves. We just kept sticking with our defense. We knew our shots were going to fall. Both teams played good defense. We just came out with the win.”


The Basics:

Atlanta Hawks (19-17) at Houston Rockets (23-13)

Point Differential:

Atlanta: +1.6 (NBA rank: 12th)

Houston: +3.4 (NBA rank: 9th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Atlanta: 103.7 (12th)

Houston: 107.6 (4th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Atlanta: 101.8 (10th)

Houston: 102.7 (t-15th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Atlanta: 97.09 (14th)

Houston: 98.14 (7th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Atlanta: 51.6% (5th)

Houston: 53.0% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Atlanta: 15.5 (14th)

Houston: 16.6 (t-25th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Atlanta: 48.5% (24th); offensive rebound rate: 21.7% (29th); defensive rebound rate: 74.8% (t-13th)

Houston: 51.9% (6th); offensive rebound rate: 27.2% (8th); defensive rebound rate: 73.5% (21st)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Atlanta: .258 (18th)

Houston: .400 (1st)

The Rockets rolled to their most lopsided win of the season the last time these two teams met as Houston recorded a 113-84 rout when Atlanta paid a visit to Toyota Center on November 27. It’s doubtful too much can be gleaned from that game, however, given all the different names that figure to be involved tonight when the rematch occurs at Philips Arena. Houston played without James Harden during the initial meeting and lost Jeremy Lin to injury less than five minutes into the game. Both players will be involved tonight, of course, though Chandler Parsons’ availability is in serious question given the fact he missed Wednesday’s win over the Lakers and has yet to take part in a practice this week (Head Coach Kevin McHale called Parsons “doubtful” for tonight’s game immediately following today’s shootaround).

The roster tumult for Atlanta, meanwhile, is even more pronounced. The Hawks played Houston without the services of Kyle Korver, Lou Williams and Shelvin Mack, and each of those players should be prominently involved tonight. There will still be a huge hole in the Hawks’ lineup, however, given the absence of All-Star forward Al Horford.

What does seem somewhat relevant, however, especially given the fact Houston is set to play three straight Eastern Conference clubs, is the Rockets’ recent dominance over their out-of-conference brethren. Houston owns a 10-2 mark against the East this season, with a sparkling point differential of +8.3. Houston’s offensive rating in those 12 games is a robust 108.1 and its defensive efficiency mark of 97.6 is even more impressive. That’s right, the Rockets have essentially boasted both a top-3 offense and defense whenever they have faced off against an Eastern Conference foe in 2013-14 – just something to keep in mind as Houston prepares to embark upon a stretch that will see them pay visits to Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Boston over the next four days.

Know Thy Enemy

- The Hawks are 3-4 since losing Horford to a torn pectoral muscle, but don’t let that record fool you; Atlanta is an Andre Iguodala buzzer-beater away from being 4-3 and each of those seven games has been decided by seven points or fewer, save for the Hawks’ most recent win – a 10-point decision over the East-leading Pacers.

It’s not surprising to see that Atlanta’s offense has taken a hit without its All-Star – the Hawks offensive rating during those seven games is 99.3; the equivalent of a bottom-10 mark – but it is rather shocking to see that the club’s D has been even stingier in Horford’s absence. Some of that improvement can certainly be attributed to the caliber of competition Atlanta has faced during that stretch –the Warriors represent the only offense the Hawks have faced sans Horford that comes even remotely close to being a top-10 unit – but it’s also the result of several players taking advantage of the increased opportunity now being afforded to them.

In particular, 31-year-old rookie Pero Antic has provided the Hawks with a big boost since his insertion into the starting lineup. The 6-11 Macedonian is averaging more than 12 points and 5 boards over the course of the last four games, but his biggest impact is being delivered via his remarkable touch from long range. Antic is knocking down three 3s per game in January while shooting better than 54 percent from beyond the arc during that time. The end result of that lethal shooting: Atlanta is a +38 when Antic has been on the floor during the last seven games – a mark that leads everyone else on the team by a significant margin.

- As good as Antic has been, however, make no mistake: Atlanta’s main man is now Paul Millsap – a player who must also be vigilantly watched whenever he wanders beyond the 3-point line. Prior to this season, the 28-year-old had only attempted 113 total triples over the course of his seven-year career. There’s a decent chance he will launch twice that many this season alone. Millsap has already taken 90 3s this year and, what’s more, he’s hitting them at a 40 percent clip. Something else to keep in mind: That number soars above the 45 percent plateau whenever he’s firing away from anywhere other than the top of the key; from that location, Millsap has made just 8-of-28 (28.6 percent).

One more Millsap note: During the seven games since Al Horford’s injury, Atlanta’s defense has absolutely fallen apart whenever Millsap takes a breather. The Hawks’ D during those 94 minutes has hemorrhaged points at a rate (110.5) far below the league-worst mark, and Atlanta’s net rating of -10.9 when Millsap has sat during that stretch is the lowest on the team.

- The last time Houston faced Atlanta, I wasted a perfectly good wannabe Dr. Seuss couplet on a player, Kyle Korver, who didn’t even dress for the game due to injury. So let’s recycle it since the message rings just as true as ever (and since I apparently lack the motivation and creativity necessary to come up with another one):

You should not leave him here or there/You should not leave him anywhere.

Korver is a catch-and-shoot assassin who is going to spend the game running hither and thither around screens all night long in an effort to acquire the necessary air space to fire away from long range. He’s hitting 52 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season and more than 47 percent of his treys overall. He’s not going to beat you off the dribble; 87 of his 89 3s have come via assists and he has only 8 unassisted made field goals for the entire 2013-14 campaign.

As you almost certainly already know, Korver has connected from downtown in an NBA record 105 consecutive games. The last time he came up empty from deep for an entire 48 minutes: November 2, 2012 when the Rockets were in Atlanta and took down the Hawks 109-102. In fact, Korver was just 1-of-6 from 3 last year during his two games against Houston.

In the spotlight

There are two things to keep a close eye on tonight. The first will be watching to see how the Rockets start the game. Much has been made of Houston’s sluggish starts of late and it’s not just idle chatter. Over the course of their last six games, the Rockets have been outscored by an average of five points per game in the first half of those contests. In the second half, however, Houston has basically flipped the script by beating the opposition by an average of 4.7 points during the final two periods of play.

The total transformation from one half to another has been remarkable. The Rockets’ offensive rating in the first half of those games is a middling 102.1 and their defensive mark is an abhorrent 112.2. Then the team apparently heads to the locker room, breaks open a can or two of spinach and starts throwing haymakers like Popeye, producing an eye-popping post-halftime offensive rating of 112.9 to go along with a neat and tidy defensive mark of 101.0. Go figure.

Of course a huge reason for the offensive turnaround can be attributed to the superhuman exploits of James Harden, who’s averaging 25.3 second-half points over the course of his last three games. And while it’s absurd to ask him to continue producing at such a prolific clip, it’s worth noting that Harden scored a then career-high 45 points the last time he played in Atlanta – with 28 of those coming in the second half.

Injury Update

Chandler Parsons (knee) did not take part in this morning’s shootaround and is officially being listed as a game-time decision. Omer Asik (knee) and Patrick Beverley (hand) are out.

All stats courtesy of except where otherwise noted.

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