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Game Day: Rockets at Knicks

Analysis and observations from Houston's 109-106 win over the New York Knicks

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s primetime, Thursday night showdown with the New York Knicks:

Post-game:

Yet another last-second, wacky, bizarre, bananas game involving the Rockets. If these continue, the club’s entire fan base (not to mention its coaching staff and front office) is going to age in dog years. Fortunately for all involved in the Houston cheering section, this one actually went the Rockets’ way in the end – but not without the now commonplace nail-biting moments of doubt and dismay, of course …

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- Tonight’s contest didn’t get off to the most aesthetically pleasing of starts. The flow was choppy early on with fouls and free throws galore, making it very much a stop-and-start affair. But that paled in comparison to the sight of Greg Smith on the ground in serious pain after awkwardly landing on his right leg. Smith had to be helped to the locker room where he received X-Rays on his right knee. The results came back negative, but multiple reports revealed that it appears as if Smith suffered an LCL sprain in his right knee. He will undergo an MRI tomorrow to confirm that diagnosis.

- It wasn’t at all surprising to see the Rockets go to the line 12 times in the first quarter. What was rather shocking, however, was watching the Knicks attempt the exact same number of freebies in the period. This was mentioned right off the top in today’s preview, but New York entered tonight’s contest ranked 29th in free throw rate and dead last in opponent free throw rate. Fortunately for Houston, reality returned in the second quarter when the Knicks made it to the line just twice. For the game, New York took 27 trips to the charity stripe compared to Houston’s 44 (of which the Rockets made 38! That’s pretty much your ball game right there).

- Another not-at-all surprising development that was touched on in today’s preview: the Knicks’ inability to protect the rim now that Tyson Chandler is on the shelf with a fractured fibula. New York has allowed its opponents to hit 65 percent of their shots from the restricted area since Chandler suffered his injury, and the Rockets were only too happy to exploit that vulnerability right the start. Of Houston’s first 10 made field goals, a whopping eight of them came from within six feet of the basket.

- After playing two straight games that went to overtime (one of which, of course, that went to double-OT), Head Coach Kevin McHale went deeper into his bench tonight, playing ten men (well, really just nine since Smith was only on the floor for a single minute before getting hurt). With several players banged up and/or feeling under the weather, this was very much a necessary move, especially given the fact that Houston has two players (James Harden and Chandler Parsons) who are in the NBA’s top-5 in terms of minutes played and a third (Dwight Howard) who resides in the league’s top-15 in that category (Harden, however, still ended up playing 42 minutes tonight. He came in averaging 40 minutes played per game).

- Noticeably not one of the ten players who saw action tonight: Omer Asik. That figures to be the subject of much post-game discussion tonight.

- Maybe Chandler Parsons just needed a bit of a chiropractic adjustment to fix his 3-point shooting stroke. Kenyon Martin certainly provided precisely that in the second quarter when he hammered Parsons on a drive, resulting in a flagrant foul on K-Mart. The next few minutes saw CP explode for 11 straight points, including a made 3 and this massive slam. As usual, Parsons showed once again tonight that he certainly has a flair for bringing his ‘A’ game in primetime and against marquee opponents. His final line: 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including a 2-of-5 mark from beyond the arc.

- Speaking of marquee opponents, Carmelo Anthony caught fire while doing his best James Anderson impersonation during a first half that saw him score 26 points. His season average coming into the game? 23 points per game. Yep, it’s been that kind of start to the season for Houston’s defense. And after a slow third quarter that saw him tally just four points, ‘Melo went right back to torching the Rockets in the final frame, racking up 15 points in the period to finish with 45. From an NBA experience standpoint, Terrence Jones is still essentially a rookie. Needless to say, since he was the one primarily responsible for defending the combustible Anthony, Jones received a baptism by fire tonight.

- Of course, Anthony wasn't the only one who enjoyed a big night. The lack of perimeter defense from either side allowed both teams to take turns carving each other up via dribble penetration. There were drive-and-kick opportunities galore throughout the game, making it rather apparent that no lead whatsoever was going to be anywhere close to safe. As if to hammer that point home, Houston saw its 14-point second quarter advantage sliced to a single point by halftime when the Knicks rattled off a 13-2 run to end the period.

- This surely won’t go down as one of Dwight Howard’s signature games from an offensive standpoint, seeing as he finished with seven points and five turnovers. Going forward, when he faces a defender like Andrea Bargnani who possesses size but little in the way of foot speed or lateral movement, Howard might be better served facing them up and beating them with his quickness rather than attempting to bully and back them down which seems to place him at a higher risk for picking up offensive fouls (and being on the receiving end of more than a few flops).

What Howard did show, however, is the immense impact he can have on a game even when he’s not a scoring threat. The 7-time All-Star hit his per-game rebounding average by hauling in 15 boards – six of which came on the offensive end – while also swatting four shots and altering countless others. Additionally, he triggered a key sequence late in the game when he found himself one-on-one against Anthony at the top of the key. ‘Melo drove right and seemed to have Howard beat for a layup, only to see the 3-time Defensive Player of the Year extend his go-go-gadget arms at the last minute and helplessly watch as Howard blocked his shot. On Houston’s ensuing trip down the floor, Chandler Parsons fired a lovely pass to Terrence Jones for a dunk. That’s a 4-point swing in a game that was ultimately decided by three points. Big.

- Ho-hum, another 21 points for Jeremy Lin tonight, this time coming in a reserve role since James Harden returned tonight following a one-game absence due to his bruised left foot. Lin’s scoring exploits hardly raise an eyebrow at this point. The best part: Despite starting the game 0-for-5 from beyond the arc, Lin never hesitated or shied away from taking attempt number six which subsequently splashed through the net. Lin spoke so many times this summer and on into training camp about his need to stay aggressive even on nights when his shot wasn’t falling. Obviously his shot hasn’t been off often this year. But it’s still very encouraging to see that confidence carry him through one of the rare stretches when he had a tough time getting his outside jumper to connect. And his forays to the rim and ability to get to the line continue to be very positive early-season markers as well.

- As for that James Harden guy, apparently the extra day off came in handy. Harden was back to his absurdly efficient self, scoring a team-high 36 points while needing just 17 shots to do so. Of course, it helps when you’re able to initiate your own personal parade to the free throw line (Harden finished 16-of-18 at the stripe tonight). 12 of Harden’s points came in the final frame; together he and Lin combined to score 21 of Houston’s 34 fourth quarter points.

- There is no winning close games without being on the receiving end of some well-timed good fortune and Houston certainly experienced its share in the form of two needless New York fouls that proved particularly costly to the Knicks. The first occurred after New York had just scored seven straight points to cut its 9-point deficit to two with less than three minutes left in the game. On Houston's ensuing possession, Harden found himself wide-open from beyond the arc only to see his shot carom off the rim. Well, he would have seen it had Raymond Felton not bowled him over while futilely trying to close out. Harden hit two of the three ensuing free throws to momentarily dull the Knicks’ momentum.

90 seconds later, Carmelo Anthony was the one falling victim to a rather harmful mental lapse, intentionally fouling Howard at the 1:36 mark in an effort to re-engage the always-entertaining and fan-pleasing Hack-a-Howard strategy. The only problem with that plan: After the two-minute mark, any away from the ball intentional foul results in one free throw – to be taken by whomever the victimized team chooses – and possession. Harden promptly stepped up and knocked down the freebie.

So for those scoring at home, those were three points gifted to Houston late in a game that just so happened to be decided by, you guessed it, three points. Hey, there’s a reason close games effectively become coin flips. As Carsenio might say: a lot of weird, wild stuff happens in the final few minutes; stuff that can be completely unpredictable and wildly swing the win probability from one team to the other in a heartbeat. Surely no one knows that better than the Rockets do right now. They’ll take a close win any way they can get it. But a blowout or two would be just as welcome – if not for the point differential then surely for the sake of the accelerated aging process of everyone who’s been on board the week-long roller coaster that’s doubled as the Rockets’ last five games.  

QUOTES

HOUSTON HEAD COACH KEVIN MCHALE

On tonight’s game:

“James (Harden) played really well and overcame a huge performance by Melo (Carmelo Anthony) and got us a win.”

On the team:

“It is going to be a process.  We have only played 10 games together.  Everyone is trying to figure each other out.  It is a work in progress.  You can practice a lot but in our business the games are the test and you can learn a lot more from the tests.  We are going to keep getting better.”

On Jeremy Lin:

“Jeremy has played well all year.  I met Jeremy in September.  He looked faster, his knee was in shape.  He has played well all along.”

On the foul on Carmelo Anthony at the end of the game:

“We want to foul.  The clock, in those situations, is winding down.  We were organized and said we are fouling on the catch.”

More on Jeremy Lin:

“Jeremy played very well and has been playing well all year.  I am happy for him.  I am glad he is healthy.  He is really content of who he is as a player.”

JEREMY LIN

On tonight’s game:

“I think it’s progress. We played more as a team today. Moving the ball around. Sharing the ball. We played really unselfish today. We also did what we had to do defensively. They had a couple of guys that were going. Melo (Carmelo Anthony) and (Andrea) Bargnani hit a bunch of shots today, but we were able to withstand that.”

On playing at Madison Square Garden:

“I was just having fun out there. You know I miss playing at the Garden. It’s great to come back here once a year and play. The fans are great. The atmosphere is incredible. It was just a lot of fun for everyone.”

On facing former teammates:

“It’s fun. I got to see familiar faces. It was great to see Shump (Iman Shumpert), unfortunately Tyson (Chandler) is hurt and Melo (Carmelo Anthony), Stat (Amar’e Stoudemire) and J.R. (Smith) – all of the guys I had some good memories with. It was definitely fun talking with them on the court.”

On final sequence in the fourth quarter:

“We decided not to give Carmelo (Anthony) a shot. That’s definitely an adjustment from the coaches in the previous couple of games. They did a great job. James (Harden) did a great job executing and fouling him with his back to the basket… He hit him twice, so the first one is the one they called. The second one was the one that could have been continuation.”

On adjusting to playing with Dwight Howard:

“Yeah, it’s hard because the Knicks were doubling so hard tonight. He was doing a good job finding the open man – he’s very unselfish in that regard. He understands that if the opposition is doubling him and we’re getting good shots out of it, we’re playing good basketball. That shows growth, maturity and progress as a basketball player.”

JAMES HARDEN

On last second shots:

“It seems like that’s happening to us a lot lately.  Last second shots – the first two times, we didn’t foul and made big three’s and tonight, I fouled and they still made a big three.  We told the referees before that we were fouling so it’s coming down to it and hopefully it will start going our way.”

On Carmelo Anthony’s shot at the end:

“He lost the ball up high at first and that’s when I fouled him initially, and then he finally gathered himself and shot it.  I knew it was on the ground.”

On the Knicks:

“They did a lot of switching so we wanted to make sure that we were aggressive, used the pick and roll and just attacked and be aggressive no matter what it was.  If one of our teammates was open, make the pass, make it easy.  We did a great job tonight of sharing the ball.”

On his condition:

“I felt pretty good.  I had it going a little bit.  I tried not to worry about any injuries and just try to focus on do whatever it takes to win the game.”

On integrating Dwight Howard:

“It’s early in the season – only our eighth game, so we have a long way to go, but he’ll catch on.  We’ll find a rhythm where we know he’s going to be successful, and where we can find out spot to score as guards.  It’s not going to take overnight.  It’s going to happen a month or two months into the season.  Right now, we’re just battling through and trying to figure it out.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

On getting fouled at the end of games:

“I wasn’t phased by it.  I knew it was going to come sooner or later.  I was trying to be focused and knock them down.  I have to keep working until I get better at it.  And I have to not let it bother me.”

More on getting fouled at the end of the game:

“There is no reason to get mad.  We still won the game and that is the only thing that matters.  They can foul but our team played through it.  Also, after they foul me, I have to get back on defense and make plays.”

On tonight’s game:

“Chandler (Parsons) was great.  T-Jones (Terrence Jones) has been playing great since he has been in the rotation.  Carmelo (Anthony) is one of the hardest guys to guard.  I thought he did a great job even though Carmelo scored a lot.”

On James Harden’s foul on Carmelo Anthony at the end of the game:

“I saw that he fouled him before the shot was shot so there was no concern.”

More on tonight’s game:

“Jeremy (Lin) has stepped up and that is what we needed.  Tonight, I am happy we got the win.”

More on tonight’s game:

“We have to learn play when teams make runs.  That is a sign of a great team is when teams make runs instead of getting frustrated and point fingers, we remain calm and stay together.  We have done that the last couple of games…stayed composed and stayed together.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

On the end of the game:

“We wanted to get stops.  We have been struggling defensively which hurts us in transition and let us do what we do best.  (Andrea) Bargnani hit a lot of shots.  That is what we do best…get out and run.”

On the offense:

“There is definitely more room to operate.  Like I said, the more stops we get, it is much easier to get out and run.”

On ending the road trip with a win:

“It gets the taste out of our mouth a little bit.  We still have a lot to prove and we still have areas to get better.  It is definitely good to end the road trip on a win against a quality team but there are areas we have to get better on.”

On Terrence Jones:

“He has worked extremely hard.  I give him a lot of credit because he didn’t play the first five or six games.  He paid his dues and now it is paying off for him.”

Pre-game:

To begin, a breakdown of each team’s current standing with regard to the 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):

New York: 47.9% (NBA rank: 18th)

Houston: 52.1% (NBA rank: 5th)

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

New York: 14.4 (4th)

Houston: 18.9 (28th)

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

New York: 45.9% (29th); offensive rebound rate: 23.2% (24th); defensive rebound rate: 73.0% (21st)

Houston: 53.3% (1st); offensive rebound rate: 28.9% (6th); defensive rebound rate: 72.4% (26th)

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

New York: .201 (29th)

Houston: .477 (1st)

A couple things to note while perusing those numbers:

- Not only do the Knicks rarely get to the charity stripe themselves, but they are also last in the league in opponent free throw rate. You know what that means: Given Houston’s proclivity toward parading to the line, the Rockets should own an absolutely massive edge in free throw attempts tonight. Throw in the fact that New York no longer has Tyson Chandler (fractured right fibula) protecting the paint, and it should be open season for Houston to stage an all-out assault on the basket (since Chandler’s injury, New York has allowed opponents to hit more than 65 percent of their shots in the restricted area – the 5th-worst mark in the NBA during that stretch). The Rockets must be relentless in that regard, just as they were a year ago when they twice defeated the Knicks by an average of more than 20 points per contest. Houston victimized the Knicks’ inability to contain dribble penetration last season and, with or without James Harden (game-time decision – foot), will likely need to do so again if they are to emerge victorious tonight.

- While the Rockets have had their own issues with leaky perimeter D in the early stages of the 2013-14 campaign, the club’s defensive rating places them just outside the league’s top-10, coming in at 11th overall. Something that would go a long way in helping to further improve their standing in that regard: taking better care of the defensive glass. Given their personnel, it’s been surprising to see Houston struggle in that area but a Chandler-less Knicks squad presents a pretty delectable opportunity for the Rockets to ‘rebound’ from their defensive rebounding woes. 

- Expect both clubs to enter tonight’s game preaching the importance of controlling the tempo. New York ranks 24th in pace of play; Houston sits fifth. Further emphasizing the Rockets’ need to run is the fact that the Knicks’ transition defense ranks in the league’s bottom-5, according to Synergy Sports.

Know Thy Enemy

- Andrea Bargnani isn’t going to win many rebounding wars, but he is a threat that must be accounted for on the perimeter. The 8th-year forward from Italy is fourth in the NBA in catch-and-shoot points per game. 8.1 of his 13.7 points per contest come via catch-and-shoot attempts which he’s hitting at a rate of better than 47 percent from the field overall and 39 percent from beyond the arc. Houston’s defenders must be cognizant of his whereabouts and extremely conscientious with their close-outs. And at the other end of the court the Rockets need to take advantage of his defensive shortcomings: So far this season New York has a defensive rating of 110.4 when Bargnani is on the floor – a number that would rank right at the very bottom of the league in that category.

- Only three teams in the NBA take more mid-range shots than do the Knicks. A big reason why: Carmelo Anthony is second in the league in that category, averaging 10.4 mid-range shot attempts per game. That’s not unusual, of course – ‘Melo was second in that category last year as well. The primary difference, however: Whereas Anthony knocked down 44.6 percent of those shots last season, he’s only connected on 34.2 percent of his attempts from that area so far in 2013-14.

- The Knicks are, quite understandably, still trying to find themselves in the wake of Chandler’s injury. Head Coach Mike Woodson has had to mix, match and juggle his lineups in order to make up for the massive amount of rim protection, rebounding prowess and all-around paint presence lost when Chandler went down. There is no ready made, one-size-fits-all solution available, of course. Kenyon Martin has helped and made an impact in his limited minutes to date, but at 35-years-old there’s only so much the 14-year veteran can do.

Given that defensive void, much of the heavy lifting will probably fall upon the club’s 21st ranked offense which has yet to recapture the magic that made it a top-3 unit a year ago. To that end, don’t be surprised if the Knicks pair their point guards together more often; backup Pablo Prigioni and Raymond Felton racked up a +16.3 net rating (per 100 possessions) last season and though they haven’t enjoyed anywhere near that sort of success to date this season, Prigioni has still generally had a positive impact for New York whenever he’s been on the floor.

In the spotlight

Two things to keep an eye on tonight:

- Jeremy Lin, of course. The circus surrounding the 25-year-old’s MSG return might not be quite as chaotic as it was during his initial welcome back a year ago, but there still figures to be plenty of buzz given the fact he’s coming off a scintillating two-game stretch that has seen him rack up 65 points – a number greater than any of the back-to-back performances he produced during his ascension to international phenomenon status nearly two years ago. Lin has been nothing short of sensational shooting the ball this season, compiling a true shooting percentage of .688 that is second only to Kyle Korver in terms of players averaging at least 20 minutes per game. Lin’s summer spent tirelessly working on his jump shot has paid significant dividends to date, especially as it pertains to his eye-popping 3-point percentage of .514 – a figure that should only serve to open up even more driving lanes to him since it demands opponents rush out to the perimeter in an effort to close out. And Lin can certainly make them pay should they over-commit; Houston averages 12.3 points per game on his drives – the third-highest number in the league in that category.

- Lastly, keep an eye on Dwight Howard’s passing out of post-up situations tonight. Howard racked up a season-high six assists last night, demonstrating the sort of smart, clever and timely decision making that will be crucial to kicking this already potent Rockets offense into an even higher gear. Without the services of Tyson Chandler to rely on, New York will almost certainly have to send at least occasional double-teams Dwight’s way. The faster Howard reads those and finds the open man, the tougher it will be for the Knicks to keep the lid on Houston’s explosive scoring ability.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.