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Game Day: Rockets at Mavericks

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 123-120 loss to the Dallas Mavericks

  • Rockets vs. Mavericks
    Monta Ellis scores 37 points and Dirk Nowitzki adds 35 as the Mavericks take the win over the Rockets, 123-120.
  • Drop-Off
    Chandler Parson leaves the drop-off pass for James Harden, and Harden finishes with the big one-hand slam.
  • Rockets vs. Mavericks: First half
    Chandler Parsons has 18 points in the first half as the Rockets hold a 68-61 halftime lead on the Mavericks.
  • Harden to Howard
    James Harden throws the long alley-oop to Dwight Howard for the finish.

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s Wednesday night matchup with the Dallas Mavericks:

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Post-game:

It’s official: The American Airlines Center is still very much a house of horrors for the Rockets. What was shaping up to be a banner night for Houston – before a national TV audience, no less – turned into one massive bummer as the Rockets watched the Mavs stage a furious fourth quarter rally while transforming an 18-point third period deficit into a miraculous 123-120 win. The Rockets’ loss was their seventh straight defeat in Dallas, with seemingly every single one of those games unfolding in a similarly gut-punching manner. Mix up what happens in the middle and the beginning all you want – the end result somehow still turns out the same, leaving Houston with nothing but a heaping helping of heartbreak, agony and pain.

Of course what happened during those first three quarters still matters, but unfortunately for the Rockets so, too, does the bitter end. This represents another double-digit lead squandered and the Rockets’ third demoralizing defeat of the young season. Take a step back, look at the big picture and it’s heartening to see the way Houston played for the vast majority of this contest. That’s a ceiling very few teams in this league can reach. But the Rockets are not yet at the point where they can consistently sustain such excellence against quality competition; to do that their defense and late-game execution must both make significant strides. That takes time and patience which no one likes to hear of course because, well duh, they’re called growing pains for a reason – pleasure, sunshine, rainbows, unicorns and gum drops don’t really enter into the equation.

No, this was instead a Nietzsche kind of night; the sort of evening that prompts one to say something along the lines of: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Feeling uplifted yet? Well, fine. Be that way. We'll start the healing process by reliving some of the happier times, then.

- It has to be said: this was a great game of basketball. Remove the dull ache and emotion – if you can – and what you’re left with was an offensive tour de force that featured countless great plays and monster performances from star players – that’s usually a pretty surefire recipe for hoops heaven.

And if your lead-in to tonight’s game was the overtime slugfest that took place between the Pacers and Knicks, then you had the pleasure of bearing witness to the perfect juxtaposition of Eastern versus Western Conference basketball this evening. Whereas New York and Indiana seemed to have to scratch, claw and suffer any number of torturous torments in order to put points on the board, the Rockets and Mavs lit up the jumbotron with so much ease in the early going it seemed as if they might lap their Eastern Conference brethren in scoring by the end of the first quarter.

Was that due in part to the degree of defense being played at the American Airlines Center? Of course. But hey, Houston and Dallas possess elite offenses for a reason and they unleashed their weaponry in all its explosive glory during a highly entertaining and fast-paced Southwest Division showdown.

The Rockets started the game 8-of-8 from the field on their way to matching Tuesday night’s totals of 40 first quarter points and 68 points by the break. Houston hit better than 68 percent of its shots from the field, exactly 50 percent of its 14 treys, and the quintet of Dwight Howard, James Harden, Terrence Jones, Omri Casspi and Chandler Parsons combined to shoot a positively ridiculous 25-of-30 (83.3%) during the first two quarters. In truth, such a remarkable offensive stretch was always an inevitability for Houston since it still managed to boast a top-5 unit even while experiencing its fair share of early season struggles from beyond the arc. Once those 3s started falling, the Rockets’ offense was going to soar into the stratosphere.

Now as for Houston’s D … Hey, how about that offense?!?!

Seriously, though, Chandler Parsons played perhaps his best half of professional basketball during the opening 24 minutes. He’s had better scoring nights, but his playmaking has never been at a higher level than it was during much of the evening. By halftime he had accumulated 18 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds and two lovely lob passes to Dwight Howard – this after joking with Grantland’s Zach Lowe a week ago that he thought he might be the worst lob passer in the NBA. Parsons would end up tying his career-high in assists with 11, and his averages from the last seven games are off-the-charts good: in the neighborhood of 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per contest with 55 percent shooting and a 40 percent hit rate from beyond the arc thrown in for good measure. He’s been outstanding the last couple weeks and he’s done it all while battling back spasms. Remarkable.

- Speaking of remarkable, Dwight Howard was still perfect from the field heading into the final frame after having hit each of his first 11 shots. Howard did it all, scoring from the post, in transition, off offensive rebounds and by knocking in a good chunk of his free throws as well. It was heady stuff from Howard on his way to setting a new season-high with 33 points and the Mavs simply had no answer for the multipronged threat of his paint presence combined with the return of Houston’s quick, clever and unselfish ball movement. When the Rockets are swinging the ball side to side with purpose and precision, knocking down their perimeter jumpers, playing with pace and bludgeoning the opposition with relentless rim attacks, there simply is no stopping them. It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Well for three quarters Wednesday night, the Rockets made it appear that way.

Then, the darkness. The dirty little secret throughout all the offensive euphoria lay hidden in the fact Houston hadn’t done a great deal to deter Dallas from scoring for much of the night either. Yes, the Rockets waltzed to the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead, but it was built primarily on the strength of their offensive wizardry. And when Houston’s outside touch suddenly went south to start the final period, the Mavs wasted little time announcing their desire to swoop right in and steal victory from the Rockets’ fingertips yet again.

Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis went supernova. Dallas drained 12 consecutive shots. Shawn Marion knocked down a clutch corner 3 to put the Mavs ahead in the final minute. And all the while Houston’s defense proved powerless to stop the bleeding and the club’s offensive pace slowed to a crawl since the Rockets had to take the ball out of the basket after every defensive possession.

Again, there’s a reason Dallas boasts an elite offense. And yes, there was some bad luck thrown in there as well, with some unfortunate bounces, missed bunnies and 50-50 calls that could have titled the game in a different direction had they gone the other way. But the point is that when you own a 14-point fourth quarter lead you can’t allow yourself to be put in a position to be burned by bad luck in the first place.

That is the meaning derived from this suffering. It’s a lesson that demands vastly improved defense and late-game execution going forward. And for those teams truly serious about making their way through the NBA gauntlet, it is the only means of survival.  

QUOTES

Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale 

(Did your team get a little three happy this game?)

“Yes, we got three happy. Our defense tonight... We never could get a handle on them. All game long they were scoring. We were scoring too. We had a lead in the fourth quarter again. We just hold on to it and we made some turnovers. We had some point-blanker and layups that we missed. We just couldn’t get them stopped the whole game. Dirk and Ellis got what they wanted.”

(The Mavs playing zone at the end)

“The Mavs go zone and we swing it around we get open shots. They were packing the paint in there because we were hurting them down low. They packed it up and at some point we are going to have to make open shots. We have good shooters. We just didn’t hit a few shots that we had. Our defense more than anything else, when we get a lead like that we have to get some stops.”

(On Dwight Howard)

“He got the ball down low and he’s very good with it. He scored down there and made them collapse their defense. We played inside out of the post and he had real good rhythm tonight.”

Rockets forward Chandler Parsons

(On the difference in the Rockets play from the first half to the second half)

“The first half we were playing great.  We were playing unselfish, we were moving the ball and we were getting out in transition.  Then for some reason we go away from what’s working.  There is no reason to do that.  When we have leads we have to extend them.  We keep putting ourselves in these situations where get the leads and then we keep letting teams hit shots and we don’t get stops.  We have to figure out a way to maintain a lead and keep growing a lead instead of letting them hit shots and going away from what works for us.”

(On the team getting a better feel for getting the ball to Dwight deep in the post)

“He [Dwight] played great.  He was finishing.  We were rolling with the lobs.  We had it going early and we have to stick with that.”

(On losing an 18 point lead)

“It’s just annoying and frustrating to know you we should have won the game.  We had a big lead and then we played completely different in one half then we did the first half.”

Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle 

(On the team’s 4th-quarter play)

“We cut it to three and then they went on a run and got it back up over 10. It would have been easy to drop our heads and stop playing, but these guys aren’t going to do that. They didn’t do it last time we played these guys down there even though we were getting beat pretty good, and tonight we hung in and we gave ourselves a chance. [Shawn] Marion hitting a three out of the corner – what a huge play. What a huge play.”

(On the play of Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis)

“Dirk and Ellis were great all night. Both guys were attacking, they were playing well off each other, they were getting other people the ball. It had to be a very entertaining game to watch. From a coaching/playing standpoint, there’s a lot of frustrating things that happened because both teams are good. Both teams are putting the other team in binds. There’s a lot of complaining to officials out there. But our guys rose above it and got the win. It’s huge. Every game you can win is meaningful and it counts in the total at the end of the year.”

(On the Rockets’ fast start to the game)

“They made eight shots in a row, shooting 100 percent. They were on pace for a 60-point quarter at the 8-minute mark. We knew they weren’t going to keep shooting that way, but we also knew we had to step it up and make them feel us more than they were defensively. Gradually, we were able to do it. They’re talented, highly-skilled. They’ve got a monster on the inside. They cause a lot of problems.”

Mavs guard Monta Ellis

(What happened in the 4th quarter to come back and get the win?) – “We stayed together as a team. We got the defensive stops when we needed and came down and made shots on the other end.”

(You’ve been putting up big numbers for a long time. Do you think this year you’ll get some recognition nationally?) – “Who knows man, I just want to win. Like I’ve said before I came into training camp with a great mind set and I love playing with this big fella right here. He (Dirk) makes my job so much easier on how the defense plays him and how good he is for our spacing and how great he can shoot. We just want to continue to get better and let everything else fall into place.”

Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki

(What has Monta Ellis meant to this team so far this season?) – “Well we’re really just playing off of him. He’s been aggressive, he’s been the ball well, but what’s been great is that he has been making plays for others. He’s making all of us better. We run a lot of screen and rolls for him, I don’t know how he does it, but he gets everyone involved and it’s been fun to play with him.”

(Not a lot of people give you guys much of a chance this year. Is there a chip on your shoulders?) – Yeah we feel like we have a good team. We’d love to get healthy. We just got Shane (Larkin) back which was a big addition. We want to get Devin Harris back at some point, and we’re looking forward to getting Brandan Wright. We need his defensive presence down low. I think we have a good team, a deep team and we’re going to keep working and see where we can take it.”

PREVIEW:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (8-4) at Dallas Mavericks (7-4)

Point Differential:

Dallas: +3.0 (10th)

Houston: +4.3 (8th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Dallas: 105.6 (6th)

Houston: 106.5 (4th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Dallas: 102.2 (14th)

Houston: 100.2 (11th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Dallas: 100.29 (6th)

Houston: 100.63 (5th)

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):

Dallas: 52.4% (NBA rank: 6th)

Houston: 53.3% (NBA rank: 3rd)

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

Dallas: 16.9 (21st)

Houston: 18.8 (29th)

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

Dallas: 49.5% (16th); offensive rebound rate: 24.8% (19th); defensive rebound rate: 74.4% (15th)

Houston: 53.2% (1st); offensive rebound rate: 28.6% (8th); defensive rebound rate: 71.8% (28th)

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

Dallas: .263 (17th)

Houston: .484 (1st)

The Mavericks are who we thought they were: a team that can put points on the board with the best of them. They need every bit of that offensive explosiveness, too, because outside of Samuel Dalembert, Dallas is largely devoid of much in the way of interior defense and rim protection. Nonetheless, this is a very dangerous team, especially at the American Airlines Center where the Mavs are 5-0 so far this season and owners of a six-game home winning streak over the Rockets. 

Know Thy Enemy

- Zone defenses in the NBA are rather like the hoops version of an Eephus pitch – a steady diet of zone isn’t healthy, but as a situational change of pace it can certainly muck up the opposition’s offense from time to time. Rick Carlisle’s Dallas teams have been among the league’s foremost practitioners of zone defense in recent years – most notably during their 2011 title run – and though their deployment of that strategic wrinkle has dwindled over the course of the past two seasons, the Mavericks still like to throw that off-speed stuff at opponents from time to time. According to Synergy Sports, Dallas has used a zone defense this season 4.4 percent of the time – only Milwaukee has played zone more often – and the results have been generally positive: Mavs’ opponents average .911 points per possession against the Dallas zone, while recording a .927 average when Dallas plays man-to-man.

The staples of zone busting are the same as they ever were: smart, crisp and sudden ball-movement paired with a lethal dose of deadeye perimeter shooting. And though the Rockets enter tonight’s game ranked 19th in 3-point percentage connecting at a clip of 33.5 percent, Houston has knocked down nearly 38 percent of its treys over the course of the past four games (i.e. when Terrence Jones was inserted into the starting lineup) – a mark that would have been third-best overall a season ago.

- The Rockets are forever attempting to bludgeon opposing teams in the paint and their modus operandi won’t change one bit when going up against the Mavs. As previously mentioned, Dallas doesn’t possess much in the way of rim protection save for the presence of Samuel Dalembert; a big reason why the Mavericks reside in the league’s bottom-10 in terms of field goal percentage allowed (61 percent) on shots within 5-feet of the basket. Only the Sixers take more shots per game from that area than does Houston, so expect the Rockets to attack the basket early and often tonight.

One last note regarding this point: Though Dallas actually outscored Houston 44-40 in paint points during the two teams’ initial meeting this season (a 113-105 Rockets win), that advantage was rendered moot when one takes into consideration the fact that the Mavs sent Houston to the line a whopping 51 times in that contest (Dallas, by the way, attempted just 25 free throws). 

- Come to think of it, tonight’s matchup ought to see no shortage of paint penetration from either side. Though Houston protects the rim much better than does Dallas – the Rockets rank fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed within 5-feet of the hoop, and are No. 1 in that category since Jones became a starter – Monta Ellis promises to frequently test the Rockets’ interior defensive integrity. Though one look at Ellis’ shot chart (which can be viewed here) reveals he has very much been a master of the mid-range so far this season, it’s important to note that has not dulled his desire to dart into the painted area in an attempt to wreak havoc. Ellis enters tonight’s game tied for first (with Jeremy Lin) in total drives to the basket, is second behind Ty Lawson in drives per game, second behind Evan Turner in points per game off of those drives, and is third in the league (behind Lawson and Lin, respectively) on the number of points per game his team has scored via his drives.

Houston, by the way, has three players – Lin (2nd, 12.6 ppg), James Harden (12th, 8.4 ppg) and Chandler Parsons (15th, 8.2 ppg) – who reside within the NBA’s top-15 in terms of the points per game their team generates off of their drives to the basket.

- When a Mavs’ shot misses the mark, Houston had better beware DeJaun Blair. Of players who average at least 20 minutes of playing time per game, only the Lakers’ Jordan Hill has a better offensive rebound rate than does Blair. The Rockets’ defensive rebounding has been surprisingly substandard to date, so the club’s coaching staff will undoubtedly hammer home the importance of placing a body (or two) on Blair anytime Dallas launches a shot. The 24-year-old corralled 5 offensive rebounds in just 18 minutes of action the last time these two teams met, and his prowess and prodigious production on the offensive glass are big reasons why the Mavs’ offensive rating (118.0) goes through the roof when he and Dirk Nowitski share the floor, as pointed out by Grantland’s Zach Lowe yesterday. 

- But while Blair can be beastly, Ellis destructive (on both ends of the floor), Shawn Marion and Vince Carter ageless, and Jose Calderon deadly as a spot-up shooter, let’s face it: in Dallas it’s still all about Dirk. No numbers are needed to encapsulate his importance at this point, but here’s one anyway: Nowitzki is the only player on the Mavericks’ roster who takes a seat and subsequently sees the team play worse without him on the floor. When Nowitzki rests, so too does the Dallas offense; the primary reason the Mavericks are 5.2 points per 100 possessions worse without him on the court. No other Dallas player sees the team post a negative net rating while they’re on the bench. Not surprisingly, Dallas’ net rating (+7.8) when Nowitzki plays is more than double that of any other Mavs starter.  

In the spotlight

Is it a copout to place the entirety of Houston’s new starting lineup in this category? Regardless, the numbers it’s produced thus far are too good not to post. Small sample size, yada yada, but in 41 minutes so far, the Rockets’ quintet of Beverley, Harden, Parsons, Jones and Howard has racked up an offensive rating of 115.2 and a defensive mark of 80.0 while outscoring its opponents by a whopping 29 points during that span. Obviously a pair of wins that came by a combined total of 35 points skews those numbers in an extremely positive direction so it will be fascinating to see how they handle their toughest test to date.

Should you prefer something more player specific, however, keep an eye on Patrick Beverley. He missed Houston’s first matchup with Dallas due to injury and struggled shooting the ball upon his return. But he’s shown signs of heating up of late, having hit 10-of-16 from the field and 5-of-7 from 3 over the course of the past two games. More importantly, his on-ball defense figures to be massively important in terms of Houston’s attempts to contain Calderon and Ellis.

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