Game Day: Rockets at Pelicans
Analysis, observations, photos and highlights from the Rockets' 103-100 comeback win over the New Orleans Pelicans
NEW ORLEANS - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston's matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans:
Coming into tonight's contest, there was no real mystery to the fact that New Orleans was going to need huge efforts from Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis if the Pelicans were going to be able to hang with Houston. Apparently both players got that message loud and clear.
For the second straight game, the Rockets conceded 14 first quarter points to the opposition's starting two-guard, with the difference being that Gordon was far more likely to maintain his torrid pace than Boston's Avery Bradley was two nights earlier. And sure enough, Gordon continued tearing the Rockets' defense apart throughout the entirety of the first half as he hit the break with 22 points and five assists to pace the Pelicans to a 56-45 lead.
Davis, meanwhile, was at his go-go-gadget best, finishing around the rim and making the occasional play that only few others in the league can, such as the moment he unleashed the full length of his gargantuan wingspan while disrupting a Harden lob to Howard that would have been an alley-oop dunk against almost any other opponent.
Making matters worse for Houston was the fact that Howard played only 11 minutes in the opening half due to foul trouble. He picked up his third foul with 7:37 left in the second quarter, so from the pewter lining playbook files, the fact that the Rockets kept themselves within 11 by the time halftime rolled around had to be considered a minor victory of sorts.
- One of the few Houston highlights from the first half: this rather delicious behind-the-back dish from Harden to a cutting Donatas Motiejunas.
- The second half began in much more promising fashion for the Rockets, and it started with Davis picking up three fouls in rapid fashion, forcing him to the bench with more than 8:30 remaining in the period. Not coincidentally, his absence – and a significant increase in the Rockets' collective energy – triggered Houston's best run of the game. The Rockets' defense ramped up, the transition game took off and Terrence Jones turned into a soaring, hyperkinetic force of nature while his former University of Kentucky teammate could only look on hopelessly from the bench. Jones poured in 12 points in the period and capped a 17-4 Rockets run by scoring six straight points as Houston erased what remained of the Pelicans' 17-point with 5:03 left in the quarter. Jones was everywhere during that stretch, playing as if he were privy to a trampoline while everyone else was wearing weighted vests that sentenced them to a more ground-bound existence.
"I just wanted to try to do as much as I can to try to help us get some energy and get back into it. I just wanted to do all the little things: try to block, run hard and get us going. Once we started defending harder, everything got better.
"I just tried to match how much impact Anthony (Davis) had. He blocks shots – I can block shots. He rebounds – I tried to rebound as much as he does. I just wanted to do all the things that help teams win."
- As mentioned, Houston's noticeable uptick in defensive intensity allowed the club to run with regularity – a massive development given the Pelicans' standing as the team with the worst transition defense in the NBA. The Rockets scored 8 fast break points in the first four minutes of the third quarter; this, after recording just four such points in the first half.
- Houston's third quarter magic still couldn't overtake the spell Eric Gordon was casting, however. Gordon's scorching shooting continued to carry the day as he headed to the final frame with 33 points and the Pelicans owned an 81-74 advantage. At that point it was difficult to divine just how much the Indiana product would have left in the tank given that he'd carried New Orleans' offense for long stretches while also playing some very high-energy defense against James Harden. The only thing that seemed certain: Houston was going to have to absolutely own the minutes Gordon sat to start the final period.
- That didn't happen. In fact, the Rockets actually fell further behind while Gordon got his breather. Regardless, WOW, what a fourth quarter. The final 12 minutes seemed to feature one monstrous, momentum-changing play after another. During one mesmerizing stretch, it seemed as if Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis were going to turn back the clock and stage a one-on-one battle similar to the ones that surely took place on the practice court of the Kentucky campus. Both players produced a plethora of special, special plays and it was only fitting that Jones finished with a new career-high in scoring (25 points) while tying his career-best with six blocks.
Then you had Jeremy Lin's twisting, 'how-did-that-go-in?' layup, Brian Roberts multiple big plays on both ends, and roughly a dozen other seemingly monumental moments turned in by nearly everyone else who shared the floor during that scintillating stretch.
But they all paled in comparison to Harden's signature step-back jumper in the final minute that gave Houston the lead for good (in a game they only led for a grand total of 1:14, by the way). With New Orleans switching everything in the back-court defensively, Harden was able to go one-on-one against the Pelicans' overmatched point guards multiple times, and on this occasion Austin Rivers drew the less than desirable assignment. Harden promptly broke his ankles as he bounced back off the dribble, rose up and swished the game-defining bucket.
This wasn't Harden's finest performance, not by a long shot, but the league's second-leading fourth quarter scorer came through in the clutch once again, pocketing 12 of his team-high 26 points in the final 12 minutes of play. Gordon, meanwhile, could muster just two points in the period, as Houston swarmed him with a trapping defense that dared someone, anyone else to beat them. Chandler Parsons, in particular, worked his tail off to ensure that defensive strategy paid dividends.
Final score: 103-100. A little larceny never hurt nobody (OK, that's a complete fabrication – it just seems fitting in the aftermath of what transpired tonight). Houston improved to 26-14, with a rather high-profile, national TV showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder looming tomorrow night. See you then.
Rockets Coach Kevin McHale
On playing down the stretch:
We got some stops. We were having a hard time stopping them and made a couple of adjustments defensively that seemed to help us a little bit. We tried to get the ball out of (Eric) Gordon's hands. He was a handful tonight. Then we got some stops, got some rebounds, ran out, got fouled, and tried to get to the line. James (Harden) made a big shot late. Got a big stop, Chandler (Parsons) got a rebound, made the free-throw and then we just kind of worked from there."
On James Harden and the finish:
"James made a big shot, got fouled. He's our closer so he did what closers do, he closed and we needed it. We started off lethargic. Monty (Williams) has those guys playing hard. They play hard every night. They won all the 50/50 balls. They were getting a good whistle because they were out-hustling us. We had to fight back the whole night and we, honestly, never got control of the game. In the third quarter, we got it tied and started to feel like we were going to get something. They got a three-pointer off a missed free-throw when we didn't box out the shooter. All of the sudden they were picking up points off of our mistakes. That's usually a bad sign. We had some interesting turnovers. Got it to a 5 point game with 2 ½, 3 minutes to go and said we just got to make plays."
Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin:
On earning the win despite trailing most of the game:
"We feel like we didn't bring the energy in the beginning. We didn't make it hard for other people, for Eric Gordon, and we had trouble scoring. We had trouble doing a lot of things. At the end, it was a great job by the coaches. We trapped pick-and-rolls for pretty much the entire second half and got them a little bit out and we were able to right back. Huge performances from James (Harden) down the stretch, and from TJ (Terrence Jones) and D-Mo (Donatas Motiejunas)."
Rockets center Dwight Howard:
On earning the win despite trailing most of the game:
"We came out sluggish and allowed them to get confidence. With a team like New Orleans, if you give them confidence and shots and chances at the rim, they make it a long night for you. We did that and some of their guys had big nights because of that. We can't allow that to happen. But we stayed together and stayed composed and we got a good win.
"We can't underestimate any team, and we also can't make an excuse for having a last game of a road trip. We have to play the same way every night, and we didn't bring that effort in the beginning. We picked it up late in the game, but we have to really start games better."
Rockets center Donatas Motiejunas
On coming back for the win:
"We played this game until the last second. I think that was really important that we showed what type of team we really are and that we can play like that. I think that's a goal of the team this year: to play as a team and win the games like this. It was not easy to be down, but we managed to come back and pull this one out."
Pelicans Head Coach Monty Williams:
On the plan for the final possession:
"My thinking during that time was 'they're all over Eric (Gordon). He can't even get a decent look at the basket without getting blitzed.' Darius (Miller) has the capability of knocking down a shot. In those situations, you're hard pressed to get a decent shot. I thought he had a really good look, I thought it was down. I'm just thankful Darius shot it with confidence. He was trying to make up for a turnover he had in the backcourt. But I thought we got a good look at it and that's all you can ask for."
On how difficult it was to find a scoring option:
"It was tough. It's especially tough when there's so much attention on Eric (Gordon) and A.D. (Anthony Davis). Other guys have to knock down shots. If you look at our numbers, they're not that great from a few of our guys that we're counting on. But again I think the guys took the shots with confidence, they just didn't make them. Jason (Smith) had a great look at the top of the key, B. Rob (Brian Roberts) had a couple off the pick and roll, but they just didn't go down. When Eric's getting trapped like that, it should be easier for everybody and it just wasn't. We just didn't knock down shots."
Pelicans Guard Brian Roberts:
On what the Rockets did defensively in the fourth quarter:
"I don't think they did anything in particular. We wanted to go with what was rolling for us and we kind of got away from that in the fourth quarter."
On the final possession:
"That was drawn up and we executed it well and got the shot that we wanted. It just didn't go in."
Pelicans Guard Darius Miller:
On if he was confident in taking the final shot:
"Definitely. I think they were all confident I would make it too. It just didn't happen to go in. It felt good to me."
On his improvement this season compared to last season:
"I'm a completely different player than last season. I think I really attribute that to the work I put in the summer with this coaching staff and with my trainer back home. Really I just try and come out and play with a lot of confidence and play aggressive, offensively and defensively. I have an opportunity right now so I'm trying to take full advantage of it."
Pelicans Guard Eric Gordon:
On how the Rockets changed how they guarded him in the fourth quarter:
"It was tough. Towards the end of the game we were just trying to figure out who could get the best shot off. Sometimes we used me as a decoy. They did do a lot of denying and whenever I touched the ball towards the end they started double teaming me. The fourth quarter, it was a mixture of trying to get the ball and sometimes using me as a decoy to throw them off."
On his shooting performance tonight:
"I feel if a team plays me straight up, I could do this almost every night. When teams play me like that I feel like I could be aggressive like this all the time. I've done it before and it's all about setting it up that way."
Houston Rockets (25-14) at New Orleans Pelicans (15-22)
New Orleans: -1.7 (NBA rank: 18th)
Houston: +3.6 (NBA rank: 9th)
Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):
New Orleans: 105.3 (8th)
Houston: 107.3 (4th)
Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):
New Orleans: 107.2 (29th)
Houston: 101.9 (T-10th)
Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):
New Orleans: 95.16 (20th)
Houston: 98.16 (8th)
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 Orleans: 49.2% (13th)
Houston: 52.9% (3rd)
Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):
New Orleans: 14.2 (T-5th)
Houston: 16.7 (28th)
Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)
New Orleans: 50.2% (15th); offensive rebound rate: 28.8% (5th); defensive rebound rate: 73.3% (22nd)
Houston: 51.7% (6th); offensive rebound rate: 27.0% (9th); defensive rebound rate: 73.2% (24th)
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 Orleans: .262 (16th)
Houston: .403 (1st)
Life's not fair example No. 1,762: The Pelicans put together a fun, fascinating team this past offseason but now injuries have transformed the birds of prey into birds of pray as they light candles and hope for rapid, full recoveries from their decimated ranks. Ryan Anderson might be lost for the season. Jrue Holiday has a fractured tibia. And Tyreke Evans will miss his third straight game tonight due to a nagging left ankle injury that has given him problems ever since he severely sprained it during the Pelicans' preseason opener in Houston.
In the meantime, New Orleans has lost six in a row and life isn't likely to get any easier as they currently find themselves attempting to somehow survive a murderers' row of a schedule that has already seen them square off against the likes of Miami, Indiana and San Antonio with Houston, Golden State and the revitalized Grizzlies still to come. Good luck with that.
All that having been said, there remains enough talent on this roster to throw a scare into anyone, the Rockets included. Few players are currently more terrifying than the Pelicans long-armed Doctor Octopus, Anthony Davis. Eric Gordon can heat up in a hurry. And Al-Farouq Aminu may very well be the best rebounder at the wing position in the entire league. So while the temptation to look past the injury-ravaged Pelicans may exist – especially with a nationally televised date with Oklahoma City slated for tomorrow night at Toyota Center – the Rockets would be wise to pay that impulse no heed. As many have discovered the hard way, bad things tend to happen to those who give into temptation in the Big Easy.
Know Thy Enemy
- Over the course of his last five games, Anthony Davis is averaging 22.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and is shooting 54.1 percent from the field. He's currently sixth in the NBA in PER. Now for the reminder that the University of Kentucky product is just 20-years-old. Yes, it's safe to say Davis is the real deal.
Offensively, he's not yet a post-up threat – Synergy places him in the 11th percentile in that category – but Davis is positively lethal as the roll man in transition and in pick-and-rolls (he's ranked in the 97th and 87th percentile in those two categories, respectively). And if Doc Ock gets the ball near the rim, the jig is basically up; Davis is hitting nearly 67 percent of the shots he takes from within the restricted area – for perspective on that figure, Houston's Dwight Howard is among the league's very best in that category and he currently owns a hit rate that's hovering right around the 68 percent plateau.
- Related to that last bullet point: Both teams like to live in the restricted area, with the Pelicans standing fourth in the NBA in shot attempts from that zone while Houston sits fifth. But whereas the Rockets boast a top-5 conversion rate of 64.3 percent, New Orleans resides in the NBA's bottom-5, hitting just 56.8 percent of their shots from that location.
- The Pelicans are tied for the league's third-best mark in 3-point field goal percentage but, somewhat strangely, they take the third-fewest number of attempts per game. Keep in mind, too, that the losses of Anderson and Holiday certainly remove a significant chunk of their long-range potency.
Eric Gordon, however, is shooting a career-high (40.2 percent) from distance, with the vast majority of his damage coming from the wings where he's hitting at a rate of more than 45 percent. In fact, his catch-and-shoot conversion percentage from downtown (48.7 percent) is currently higher than that of catch-and-shoot luminaries such as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Jose Calderon and Ray Allen.
But don't make the mistake of thinking Gordon to be just a gunner; the 25-year-old can create off the bounce as well, especially via the pick-and-roll where he's a crafty and effective playmaker for his teammates. Health has been and continues to be a concern for Gordon, but when he's right he possesses the ability to be a dynamic force on both ends of the floor.
- After adjusting for pace, the Pelicans rank sixth in the league in second-chance points scored per game. As usual, Houston is going to have to employ gang rebounding this evening, especially when Howard is off the floor, to help ensure it takes care of business on the defensive glass. Only the Suns give up more second chance points per 100 possessions than do the Rockets.
- The last time out, Houston went toe-to-toe with a Boston team that makes a point of running opponents off the 3-point line. Tonight the Rockets will see an approach that is on the opposite end of that spectrum. Only four teams allow more 3s per game than does New Orleans and only three clubs concede more corner 3s per game.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, are dead last in the league on a points per possession basis in defending spot-ups and transition scoring opportunities, and they're 27th against post-ups, per Synergy. There is a reason, after all, that New Orleans' defense is next to last in the league. If the Pelicans are to make this a game, odds are it will be a shootout, not a grit-and-grind slugfest.
- This final bullet point might be the most important of all: No team sends opponents to the line more than the Pelicans do while Houston, of course, attempts more free throws per game than any other NBA club. The Rockets, then, should absolutely dominate the battle of the charity stripe tonight, similarly to the way they did back on December 28 when Houston went 25-of-32 from the line while the Pelicans shot a paltry eight free throws total.
In the spotlight
Jeremy Lin has been in a groove the last two games, averaging 17 points and 8.5 assists while shooting nearly 56 percent from the floor during that span. Given Holiday's absence and the Pelicans' season-long generosity on the defensive end, Lin figures to have an excellent chance to continue his roll tonight.
Aaron Brooks (knee tendonitis) and Greg Smith (knee) did not take part in today's shootaround. Brooks will be a game-time decision while head coach Kevin McHale said Smith is out. Omer Asik (knee) and Patrick Beverley (hand) are also out for tonight's contest.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.