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Game Day: Rockets vs. Grizzlies

Analysis and observations from Houston's 100-92 win over the Memphis Grizzlies

HOUSTON - Less than 24 hours after duplicating the high point of their season with another big win in San Antonio, the Rockets apparently decided the experience of re-creating history was one well worth repeating. So with Memphis in town Thursday night, Houston went right to work mimicking its hard-fought, ugly, comeback triumph over the grit-and-grind Grizzlies from a month ago.

And while some of the scenarios changed, the end result was indeed the same. The Rockets emerged victorious following a hard to watch, aesthetically unpleasing yet ultimately satisfying 100-92 win that saw Houston overcome foul trouble and ice-cold shooting along the road to victory.

Rockets/Grizzlies

The resemblance between tonight’s game and the Rockets’ 93-86 win over Memphis was at times uncanny. As they did on November 25, the Grizzlies again seized a big early edge thanks to an overpowering effort on the offensive glass. Zach Randolph (23 points, 17 rebounds – 8 of those coming on the offensive end) in particular was a one-man wreaking crew in the paint, corralling caroms and drawing fouls at a dizzying rate. Likewise, Dwight Howard spent the entire fourth quarter hootin’ and hollerin’ from the bench like the world’s most muscular cheerleader – just as he did during that November night in Memphis.

Something Houston did not have that particular evening, however, was the services of one James Edward Harden, and suffice to say his presence came in rather handy Thursday night. Harden, in fact, made history, becoming the first player ever to register 27 points on two or fewer field goals made. And with the Rockets misfiring nearly all night from 3-point land, each and every one of those free throws proved pivotal to an offense that seemed stuck in the mud for significant stretches of the contest.

The lone exception in that regard was the fourth quarter, when Houston finally broke loose and rediscovered its mojo. Jeremy Lin led the way, pouring in 14 points in the final frame as the Rockets managed to complete their comeback from a 13-point deficit. Donatas Motiejunas, Houston’s only healthy big off the bench, scrapped and clawed out 23 quality minutes. And Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones helped to keep their team afloat when it seemed to be in extreme danger of capsizing beneath an ocean of offensive boards and exhaustion.

To be sure, this was nowhere near the masterpiece of hoops artistry the Rockets had created the night before in San Antonio. Then again, perhaps this was a performance strictly for the surrealists. How else to describe a game in which Houston found a way to win while its two superstars combined to hit just three field goals? 

“It was ugly and we had to scrap but that is a tough team to play against,” Chandler Parsons said after pumping in 15 points, 11 boards and five assists in 44 minutes of action. “We knew going in that they were going to attack the offensive glass hard and they were going early so we needed to make an emphasis in the second half to keep them off. Guys were tired, guys were exhausted and we really just needed to gut this one out. A win is a win. We didn't play too great but it' s over with and we will take it.” 

OBSERVATIONS

- I’ve written several times this season about the on-court chemistry between Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, but I don’t think any of those words capture the synergy those two former SEC players possess quite the way this clip does.

- That video also nicely encapsulated the continuation of Jones’ return to ‘force of nature’ status. One night after turning in what may well have been his finest performance as a pro, Jones, was electric offensively in the first half, flying up and down the floor and finishing everything in sight on his way to putting up a 7-for-7 stat line that also included 14 points. Both Jones and the Rockets are clearly at their best when the tempo is pulsing as it was early on Thursday night when Houston raced out to an 8-point lead.

- Those fast times, however, proved to be fleeting as the Grizzlies staged an all-out assault on the offensive glass that allowed their usually anemic offense to perform at an elite rate in the second quarter. By halftime, Memphis had grabbed 50 percent – pardon me, that should probably read “FIFTY PERCENT!!!” – of its misses while transforming that 8-point deficit into an 8-point lead. The Grizzlies racked up 17 second-chance points in the opening half, and at certain times appeared to be battling themselves, rather than Rockets players, in their greed to grab offensive boards.

Their non-stop onslaught on the offensive glass so infuriated Kevin McHale that at one point he practically marched out to center court to call a timeout, leaving no secret as to amount of unfettered rage and fury filling his soul at that particular juncture. Just a guess: McHale might have used that break in the action to get the guys to try a visualization technique prompting them to imagine they were suddenly back in San Antonio. Because let’s face it: Houston’s effort and execution was nowhere close to the awesome levels the Rockets had reached the night before.

- James Johnson, the No. 2 overall pick of this year’s D-League draft by none other than the RGV Vipers, burst onto the scene in the second quarter, throwing down three particularly vicious dunks on his way to delivering 9 points and 3 steals in the period. And while Johnson appeared to be putting on his own personal, in-game audition for the 2014 dunk contest, Dwight Howard picked up 3 fouls in just 14 minutes of action. Yep, if it hasn’t been made abundantly clear by now, let there be no doubt: basically everything Memphis did during those 12 minutes of disaster worked to perfection. 

- Life didn’t get any easier for Houston when the third quarter began, as Howard rapidly picked up two more fouls, forcing him to the bench with five fouls and nearly 20 minutes left in the game. The 7-time All-Star has been dominant for more than a month and carried his team for long stretches during that time. Tonight, he needed his teammates to show him the courtesy by doing the same for him – a tall task to be sure, given that the Rockets were down double-digits and would have to climb that mountain without its best rebounder and rim-protector (and without the services of the injured Omer Asik and Greg Smith, too, of course).

- So what’s the formula for success in such situations? Apparently it calls for a little more excellence from Jones, a dash of zone defense and a heaping helping of James Harden bulling himself to the free throw line. It might not be anyone’s idea of aesthetically pleasing basketball, but on a night when those 3s aren’t falling, Harden’s preternatural gift for getting to the charity stripe sure can cure a lot of ills. The Rockets finished 5-of-24 from beyond the arc tonight, while Harden turned in your routine, everyday, run-of-the-mill 27-point performance on 2-of-9 shooting (while going 22-of-25 from the line, naturally). Being the No.1 team in the NBA in free throw rate is an awfully big deal, folks.

- The signature sequence from tonight’s wackiness: Donatas Motiejunas, blocking a shot on one end before flushing home a fast break slam at the other. On an evening when Houston desperately needed some quality minutes off the bench from one of its bigs, D-Mo delivered the goods and even ended up leading the team in plus/minus with a +17.

“D-Mo won us that game,” said James Harden. “He hadn’t really played in a couple games, but we needed somebody to rebound the basketball. He did a great job of battling (Zach Randolph) and just competing. He didn’t get a lot of rebounds, but him battling gave the guards opportunities to get the rebounds.”

Dwight Howard, meanwhile, was even more effusive in his praise for Motiejunas: “D-Mo came in and he was Super D-Mo tonight. He played great on both ends of the floor. He ran the floor, he battled Z-Bo, and that’s all you can ask for.”

- What an awesome fourth quarter for Jeremy Lin. Like so many of his teammates, J-Lin had struggled badly for most of the night, but he turned these around in the final frame, scoring 14 points in the period while making a menace of himself on the defensive end as well.

“I just tried to stay aggressive. I know I had a lot of mistakes early on, but I’m thankful to God I got a rhythm. It really didn’t feel good out there.

“Play harder, play as hard as you can – I think that’s what we did. We played with desperation. We didn’t get every rebound in the second half, but we definitely fought for them. I don’t think we really fought for rebounds in the first half.”

The Rockets’ defense, meanwhile – sans Dwight Howard, no less – tightened the screws and limited Memphis to just 39 points in the second half. Chandler Parsons (15 points, 11 boards, 5 assists) chipped in several key plays and Harden simply kept willing himself to the line. The end result: a 100-92 Rockets win.

With the victory, Houston improves to 20-11 on the second and a remarkable 7-1 on the second night of back-to-backs. Next up: a date with New Orleans Saturday night at Toyota Center before the Rockets return to national TV for their ought-to-be-epic showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

NOTES AND QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On not going back to Dwight Howard) “I wanted to get back to Dwight. We got a little bit of a lead and I wanted to play Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) head up there but his (Dwight's) back has been bothering him the last couple of days and he really stiffened up on the bench. Greg Bucker, our assistant coach, walked up to him and said 'Oof, maybe if I get some sprints in I can get ready.' He (Dwight) was just too stiff. D-Mo (Donatas Motiejunas) did a good job. I was happy for him.”

(On Donatas Motiejunas) “D-Mo played with energy. We were having a hard time getting our energy up. Last night was a big game. We didn't get in late or anything like that. You could feel it in the shoot around. We were draggy. Guys put a lot of emotional and physical effort in last night's game and I really extended (minutes) guys and I extended them again tonight. I mean, they are really getting extended, some of these guys, holy smokes. They are playing almost the whole game.”

(On the play of James Harden) “That's pretty unbelievable (James getting 27 points on 2 for 9 field goals) Usually, 2 for 9 does not lead to 27 points. They were being really aggressive with him and he kept putting the ball down and driving fast. He's elite at drawing fouls. He got to the line 25 times. We got there (free throw line) 40 as a team. Needless to say most of them were from him.”

(On consistent play of team) “Hopefully it is the start of us gelling and coming together and putting together some good play. I think for us to really hit total stride it is going to take us getting everybody back and that's not going to happen for awhile. So this team is going to have to learn to fight and rely on different people. Francisco (Garcia) made a big three in that 4th quarter. D-Mo had great energy. Jeremy (Lin) turned a tough game into a big time 4th quarter performance to help us win. Chandler (Parsons) played almost the whole game, had 11 rebounds, 15 points. James found a way to take a tough shooting night and get 27 points for us tonight so there was a lot of positives inside that. We just got to keep on going on that.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On the win) “It was ugly and we had to scrap but that (Memphis) is a tough team to play against. We knew going in that they were going to attack the offensive glass hard and they were going early so we needed to make an emphasis in the second half to keep them off. Guys were tired, guys were exhausted and we really just needed to gut this one out. A win is a win. We didn't play too great but it' s over with and we will take it.

(On the play of Donatas Motiejunas) “A huge reason (for the win) was D-Mo. Donatas has had a struggle this entire year. I give my hat off to him just for sticking with it and being ready to play. I know it is frustrating what he is going through but he really stepped up for us tonight. He was really physical with Z-Bo in the second half and that's what we had to do. We had to stop allowing them to get second chances so we could get out in transition and get out and run and do what we do best.”

JEREMY LIN

(On how the Rockets were able to turn the game around in the second half) “Play harder. Play as hard as you can. I think that's what we did. We played with desperation. We didn't get every rebound in the second half, we didn't get every defensive rebound but we fought for them. I don't think we fought as hard for the rebounds in the first half.”

(On the Rockets picking up their tempo in the 4th quarter) “I just tried to stay aggressive. I know I had a lot of mistakes early on and I am thankful to God that I got in rhythm. We really didn't feel good out there. It was an ugly game all around.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On how he is feeling after his back stiffened up after 1st quarter) “I feel okay. I'm just happy we got the win. He (Coach McHale) asked me if I wanted to go back in and I said these guys out there are playing good. D-Mo was playing really well and I don't want to mess up their rhythm. We got a good win. D-Mo came in and he was super D-Mo tonight. He was great on both ends of the floor. He ran the floor well. He battled Z-Bo (Zack Randolph) well and that's all you can ask for.”

(On Donatas Motiejunas) “D-Mo played excellent basketball. He did everything quick. He got into pick and rolls and he ran the floor well. He got some easy buckets. He played great defense. He played hard and I was happy for him.”

DONATAS MOTIEJUNAS

(On playing against Zack Randolph) “Zack is a big dude. He's one of the best players in the league at the fourth position. He's certainly not easy to stop especially when he is so strong. I had a big task and I tried to help our team win. That was my goal.”

(On what the block and the dunk he made meant to him) “ I'm really happy that our fans were behind our team. It is really nice to play in this type of game when you know you are struggling and nothing is going our way. As soon as we had those possessions, the fans were fired up. They fired us up. I think that was one of the most important things. The fans were behind us and they gave us energy that we were missing after yesterday's game in San Antonio.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On his scoring 22 points from the line) “Just being aggressive, being aggressive. I couldn't make a shot. I just tried to get to the rim. We were kind of stagnant throughout the middle of the game, especially the 3rd quarter. So, I just wanted to get in attack mode.”

(On his play) “We were sluggish. Everybody was stagnant. They went up about 13 points and everybody was looking around. Coach said we had to be aggressive. He said you can't wait right now so I had to do something and getting to the basket was the option.”

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES COACH DAVE JOERGER

(On the game getting away from them) “I would say they’re pretty good. I don’t think it got away anywhere. They made shots, we didn’t score. We had 12 points going into the last minute (4th quarter). I think going on the road, it can be difficult.

They’re a good team and they made plays.”

(On their 4th quarter shots) “They double teamed and we didn’t get the space, we didn’t make a lot of shots. We got shots and I thought we had open threes and Houston went to a zone in the third quarter and we started to analyze and stand around in the fourth quarter. The ball stopped moving and we stopped going inside, but there were a lot more people in there and we started to analyze too much and get away from what we were doing. And then, they started running downhill on us a little bit. Then, they got momentum and made some shots and we didn’t make shots and didn’t make stops. We had a ton of shots in the paint (54 shots in the paint) and I don’t know what else we could do. Those numbers are incredibly high. They out scored us at the foul line. We did what we were supposed to do, they just made some shots and they have some shot makers, they make threes, and they got to the rim, which was the disappointing part. They got to the rim for to many easies, and you can’t give them that many bullets from a team that is offensively talented as they are. We have to make more charges, I think we took one. My hats are off to them. They’re a really good team.”

MIKE  CONLEY

(On how the game got away from them) “The rhythm got a little shook up and they were being aggressive getting to the rim and getting to the foul line. They were able to control the game and kind of got us out of our flow. We had a great flow going into the fourth quarter. We were getting stops and getting out into transition and getting easy buckets and moving the ball on the offensive end, but then they started controlling the tempo of the game and started getting to the foul line and making plays.”

(On holding Dwight Howard and James Harden to a total of three field goals) “It would definitely surprise me. ‘They only had three field goals?’ I don’t know how we lost then to be honest. That’s a tough one. We felt like we had a chance to win that one.”

TONY ALLEN

(On where did the game turn) “I don’t know. We have to look at film. It went by me so fast. I just know they made a run and we couldn’t weather the storm and they got out of here with a victory.”

(On defending James Harden and holding him only two field goals) “Basically, all I could do was to try and compete. Obviously, he’s (James Harden) is an All-Star. He’s James Harden. All I could do was compete. He got to the foul line a lot tonight and I think that’s were he got his bread and butter tonight.”

(On the loss) “Yes, it’s definitely a discouraging loss. We had the momentum throughout the game. They weathered the storm, got to the foul line and attacked as the aggressors and you have to take your hats off to them.”

NOTES

Houston registered another sold out crowd of 18,201 tonight, giving the Rockets 15 sellouts on the season.

The Rockets erased a 13-point deficit in taking a 100-92 victory over the Grizzlies tonight. Houston actually trailed 72-66 heading into the fourth quarter, giving the Rockets their second win this season when trailing after third quarters (both to Memphis). Down by eight (63-55) at the start of the fourth quarter, Houston also went on a 20-6 run en route to a 93-86 win at Memphis (11/25/13).

Memphis took the battle of the boards by a 49-41 edge tonight, which included an opponent regulation season-high 20 offensive rebounds. The Toronto Raptors also grabbed 20 offensive boards in a double-overtime game at Houston (11/11/13), with only 15 of those coming in regulation.

James Harden made NBA history tonight, becoming the first player ever to register 27 points on two or fewer field goals made. The next closest was Charles Barkley, who scored 26 points on 2-of-16 from the field and 22-of-27 from the free throw line. Harden finished a career-best 22-of-25 from the stripe, tying the Rockets single-game record for free throws made set by Sleepy Floyd, who went 22-of-27 at the line vs. Golden State (2/3/91).

Terrence Jones, who recorded 21 points (9-20 FG), 14 rebounds and three blocked shots last night at San Antonio (12/25/13), finished with 20 points (10-14 FG), five boards and two blocks tonight. It marked the first time in Jones’ career to post consecutive 20-point games.

Chandler Parsons totaled 15 points (5-12 FG, 5-6 FT), 11 rebounds and five assists tonight, marking the 13th double-double of his career.

Donatas Motiejunas played a season-most 23:18 off the bench, notching a career-high three blocked shots.

Jeremy Lin scored 14 of his 18 points (5-13 FG, 2-4 3FG) in the fourth quarter tonight, which included all six of his makes from the free throw line (6-6 FT).

Zach Randolph recorded a team-high 23 points (8-20 FG, 7-12 FT), 17 rebounds (8 offensive) and five assists tonight. Memphis is now 9-2 this season when Randolph leads the team or shares the team lead in scoring.

James Johnson, who was called up by the Grizzlies from the NBA D-League Rio Grande Valley Vipers, had 12 points (5-8 FG), five rebounds, three steals and one block tonight. In 10 games with the Vipers, Johnson was the only D-League player to be ranked in the top-15 in scoring, rebounding and assists.

Kosta Koufos, who recorded 13 rebounds in his prior meeting with the Rockets (11/25/13), had another 11 boards tonight.