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Game Day: Rockets vs. Kings

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 119-98 win over the Sacramento Kings

HOUSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings:

Dwight Howard didn't need the help, nor did he want it. He looked to be at his dominating best even before his Kings counterpart, DeMarcus Cousins, was forced from the game due to a sprained left ankle.

But with Sacramento’s already vulnerable interior D suddenly made even more so by Cousins’ injury, Howard didn’t just dominate, he flat out detonated, blasting the Kings to smithereens as the Rockets rolled to a 119-98 victory Wednesday night at Toyota Center.

Rockets v Kings Photos

“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Howard said, following his 26-point, 13-rebound and 4-block performance. “I know the last couple of games against those guys I didn’t come out aggressive like I need to on both ends of the floor.

“I watch a lot of film and I see things that I can do better every night and I take that to the next game. Each game is a different challenge, but one thing that we can all learn to do is just play hard every game and when we do that good things happen.”

To that end, the Rockets actually began the game with a rather sleepy, sluggish start, hitting just two of their first 10 shots from the field while struggling to obtain any real sense of rhythm. But the second Houston discovered the joy of Sacramento’s marshmallowy soft interior and transition D, the effect was akin to a triple espresso combined with a can of Red Bull for good measure. The Rockets were jolted out of their slumber, and the soon-to-be rout was on.

From that point forth, Houston feasted upon a steady diet of dunks, layups and put-backs as the Kings defense extended a come-one-come-all invitation to the rim. And seemingly anytime the Rockets desired to push the pace, an easy fast break bucket awaited as the end result. Case in point: by halftime Houston had racked up a whopping 42 paint points and 18 points via fast breaks – the latter total being two points more than the Rockets average per game.

To be sure, those numbers were aided in part by the fact that Rudy Gay was forced from the game just six minutes in due to a left Achilles injury, only to be followed by Cousins a quarter later when the Kings’ center sprained his left ankle during one of his coast-to-coast forays to the rim.

But Houston’s dominance began well before Boogie’s departure, despite the fact that the Rockets failed to ever find their touch from beyond the arc. Houston missed its first 10 3-point attempts before Omri Casspi finally connected from distance in the second quarter, but it hardly mattered; not with James Harden strolling to the hoop at his leisure or Howard dunking everything in sight.

The Rockets’ superstar duo combined for 50 points and there were moments when it felt as if they could have made a run at doubling that total should they have so desired, such was the ease with which they teamed up for one alley-oop slam after another. This was men against boys, or, if you prefer (and you probably don’t) Juan Pablo playing soccer against his myriad love interests on The Bachelor.

“Guys had it going so their guards were hesitant to help off of other players,” explained Harden, who finished with 24 points and a game-high 9 assists. “I was just trying to look for my big guy and he did a good job of rolling being ready for my passes.

“Not only myself, but also our entire team has done a phenomenal job of passing the ball. When the ball’s hopping like that and guys are getting touches and easy shots, it makes everybody happy. We’ve just got to continue it.”

Indeed, Houston dished out 28 assists tonight, less than 48 hours after serving up a similarly spiffy 27 against the Blazers. As is often the case with this club, when the ball whips around as quickly and unselfishly as it did tonight, good things and high point totals typically ensue.

In fact, the biggest challenge for Houston during the second half was simply maintaining focus and concentration. And though the occasional slip occurred, the Kings could only manage to close the gap to 13 points in the third quarter before the Rockets ran away from them once more.

All told, Houston had three players record double-doubles, with Chandler Parsons joining Howard and Casspi (20 points and a career-high tying 12 rebounds) as part of that exceptionally productive triumvirate.

And not to be overlooked was Patrick Beverley, who once again proved to be a plus/minus superstar: Beverley finished the night boasting a game-high +31, bringing his two-game plus/minus total to a jaw-dropping +57 since returning from a fractured right hand that kept him sidelined for a month.

“His intensity is 24 hours and seven days a week,” Casspi said of his energizer bunny teammate. “It's every day, every practice, every shootaround. It's the same energy and intensity and I'm really glad to have him back. When you can play him and Jeremy (Lin) together then that is a great one-two punch that we have.”

NOTES AND QUOTES

QUOTES

HOUSTON ROCKETS QUOTES COACH KEVIN McHALE

(On the game) “We had 29 assists tonight. That made a big difference. The guys are looking for him (Dwight Howard). I thought we had good ball movement. I thought our defense at times was really, really good tonight. Guys were just making simple plays. Our starting back court had seventeen assists between Pat (Harden) and James (Harden). When you do that good stuff is going to happen.”

(On James Harden attacking) “He started getting at the rim. I thought we were settling for a lot and playing east and west. We told them to get to the hole and put pressure on the basket and they did.”

(On Omri Casspi and Pat Beverley's performance) “Casspi played very well. He had 12 rebounds. He played well for us. We need him. We're down on bodies. Every body that's played had to play well and they did. We had 23 points between Jeremy (Lin) and Omri off the bench which was big for us to get those bench points. We only had nine guys in uniform. He (Omri) did a good job. I thought that Patrick, again, did a nice job of just being destructive defensively moving the ball. Simple plays. Cutting through. Making our offense look a lot smoother without having to dribble the ball and hold it.”

(On rebounding without Terrence Jones in the lineup) “I was concerned about tonight especially but DeMarcus (Cousins) hurt his ankle and only played ten minutes and then Rudy (Gay) hurt himself. I didn't see how. They lost a lot of size. When you have those two out there it's a totally different game.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On the key to the Rockets success) “I would say our ball movement has been a lot better. We've been throwing the ball ahead and we've been playing more unselfish. It's so much easier for us when we do that and it just opens up so much more space to operate, little things that coach always talks about, throwing the ball ahead instead of dribbling it. When you dribble it, it gives the defense time to set up and they can lock in defensively. Just that three or four foot go ahead offsets the defense and then you peel back and there's a lot more space.”

(On Dwight Howard's outlet passes to get the Rockets into their offense) “He (Dwight) is really good at that. That's the first thing that he does every time he gets a rebound. He looks up the floor and not necessarily just for Jeremy (Lin) or Pat (Beverley), the point guards. He'll throw it up to anybody. He's been really good at that.”

JAMES HARDEN

(On the play of Omri Casspi) “He played well. He made shots. He really got after them on the defensive end. I always try to tell him all the time, we need that guy that is going to do whatever it takes to help the team win. He's done that. He's started to take charges and make open shots. He's just playing team basketball the way we needed to.”

(On if they played with emphasis after DeMarcus Cousin's injury) “That was our game plan no matter what. I'm sorry those guys got injured hopefully they'll get better, but just to play the way we've been playing. Against Portland in our last game, we did a good job, like I said, of moving the basketball. So, we wanted to come with that mindset of making it easier for our teammates. Especially since Sacramento has beat us twice already so we had an extra chip on our soldier.”

DWIGHT HOWARD

(On the Rockets finally beating the Kings after two losses) “We just wanted to attack them early. In the last game (against the Kings) they attacked us. They had us on our heels and they got two wins against us. One here and one at their spot. We wanted to come out and be aggressive from the jump and hit them first.”

(On the Rockets success offensively) “We just ran some plays. We knew that they (Kings) were helping on James (Harden) a lot so the lob was coming from the back side and James was being very aggressive getting to the basket so they had to make a decision, do they let him drive and stay home with me? It worked both ways.”

OMRI CASSPI

(On the win) “We've been playing good basketball. We wanted to continue to play good basketball after the Portland game. We've had a lot of guys hurt, lot of guys down. Whoever is out there is playing hard and is playing for his teammates and that's what makes you successful.”

(On having Pat Beverley healthy) “His intensity is 24 hours and seven days a week. It's every day, every practice, every shoot around. It's the same energy and intensity and I'm really glad to have him back. When you can play him and Jeremy (Lin) together then that is a great one, two punch that we have.”

SACRAMENTO KINGS COACH MICHAEL MALONE

(On the injuries) ”Obviously Rudy suffered the Achilles injury, and DeMarcus rolled his ankle, but we won’t know until tomorrow, until we get home and get more testing done as to the severity of those injuries.  But obviously, a big loss when you lose both of those guys in the first half.  Unfortunately, our other guys that were able to play didn’t respond.”

(On the game)  “We got our butts kicked tonight.  We are a no excuse team, so whether Rudy or DeMarcus plays, the fact that we guarded no one tonight has nothing to do with them not being able to play in the second half.”

(On how Rudy hurt himself)  ”I could see prior to that point I knew it was bothering him a little bit and Pete Youngman, our trainer, said to keep an eye on Rudy, and then he went out there and the very next play he kind of hurt it a little bit, more serious.  With DeMarcus, we don’t want to risk hurting those guys any more than they were, so we got them in the back with treatment, and we’ll find out the severity of their injuries tomorrow.”

(On his message to the team after both players went down)  “My message was simple.  We just lost over 40 points with Rudy and DeMarcus being out, but the way I look at things is that that is not an excuse.  We have enough healthy bodies that are here that can go out and play and accept that challenge.  When you give up sixty six points in the paint, and twenty nine in transition, and twenty give in the glass, I don’t care who is playing, I don’t care who is out there.  Those numbers are unacceptable no matter who is playing out there for us.  I just tried to get them together, and I don’t care about the results but let’s just fight and compete.  Forget the score, let’s just fight and compete for the rest of the game.  We did it in stretches, but it wasn’t the effort I was hoping for.

JIMMER FREDETTE

(On losing two starters to injuries) “Obviously, it is tough to lose two starters, but we can’t use that as an excuse.  Now, we have to go out and play with the personnel we have, and we feel like we have enough talent still to go out and be competitive and win games, and we weren’t able to do that tonight.  We didn’t give a great effort tonight.”

(On the Rockets) “They really didn’t do anything different than we expected, we just didn’t stop what they do well.  They get out in transition, got a lot of paint points, made a lot of points in transition, and that’s the type of team they are and they’re at their best when they do that, and we didn’t do a good job of stopping them.”

DERRICK WILLIAMS

(On playing short handed) “It hurts all of us, especially when you’re missing forty points a game between the two of them, and it really hurts the whole game plan.  At the same time, other guys have to step up and try to fill roles.  It’s tough when we were playing from behind the whole game.  All of our other guys have to step up, they may not be here for Friday when we have the Pacers, arguably the best team in the league.  Everybody has to be on point, we’re missing two guys and we just have to be ready to play.”

(On the third quarter when you cut down the Rockets lead) “At that point every time we’re making runs, sometimes we got caught in too many iso situations and we should just be moving the ball a little more, and I think that’s the reason we were in that game at one point.  When we’re making runs everybody is moving the ball and sharing it.  We’re at our best when multiple people are in the scoring column and that’s when we are a hard team to beat.  Tonight we just really didn’t play good defense, and that’s the reason why we lost.”

NOTES

Houston poured in 64 second-half points to cap off a 119-98 (+21) win over Sacramento tonight, giving the Rockets their first win against the Kings this season. It also marked Houston’s fourth 20-plus point win of the season.

The Rockets took a 55-42 (+13) edge off the glass tonight, giving Houston 13 50-rebound games on the season. Houston also outrebounded the Blazers by 52-37 (+15) in the last game vs. Portland (1/20/14).

Houston added another 55 points in the first half tonight. The Rockets have now combined for 261 first-half points over their current five-game homestand (65.3 first-half ppg).

The Rockets tied their season high for points in the paint with a 66-32 advantage over the Kings tonight.

Houston has now set a new season high in second-chance points in the last three consecutive games. The Rockets started with 22 vs. Milwaukee (1/18/14), set another best with 23 vs. Portland (1/20/14) and marked another new high tonight with 25 second-chance points.

For just the second time this season, the Rockets registered at least 60 points in the paint, 20 second-chance points and 20 fast-break points, with both coming during this homestand (1/18/14 vs. Milwaukee).

The Rockets, who went 7-of-28 (.250) from beyond the arc in the last meeting vs. Sacramento (12/31/13), were just 8-of-31 (.258) from downtown tonight.

Dwight Howard finished with 26 points (10-13 FG, 6-17 FT), 13 rebounds and four blocks tonight. Howard actually posted 17 points (7-10 FG), 10 boards and three blocks over the opening two quarters, marking the ninth time this season he has recorded a double-double by halftime.

James Harden registered 24 points (7-16 FG) and nine assists tonight, going a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line. It marked the ninth time in his career (eighth with Rockets) to go perfect from the free throw line with double-digit attempts.

Omri Casspi came off the bench with a season-high 20 points (9-15 FG, 2-5 3FG) and a career-high-tying 12 rebounds (12 on 2/19/12 vs. Sacramento).

Chandler Parsons added 19 points (7-15 FG, 3-7 3FG) and 10 rebounds tonight. Parsons was coming off a season-high 31 points (12-19 FG), 10 boards, seven assists and two blocks vs. Portland (1/20/14).

Derrick Williams led the Kings with 22 points (7-15 FG, 3-6 3FG, 5-8 FT) and 11 rebounds tonight, which marked his first double-double with the Kings this season.

Isaiah Thomas had 20 points (6-16 FG, 2-9 3FG) and six assists tonight. Thomas has now made at least one 3-pointer in each of the last 35 games (11/13/13-1/22/14), which matches the fourth longest streak in franchise history: 39 by Mitch Richmond (12/3/96-2/26/97), 36 by Peja Stojakovic (12/21/02-3/9/03), 36 by Peja Stojakovic (1/25/04-4/6/04) and 35 by Peja Stojakovic (11/3/04-1/17/05).

Injury Updates: Rockets forward Ronnie Brewer was out tonight with a sore calf. Kings forward Rudy Gay left the game in the first quarter with an Achilles injury. Kings center DeMarcus Cousins also departed the game in the second quarter with a sprained left ankle. Cousins had his Sacramento-era record for consecutive double-doubles snapped at 15 in a row (12/21/13-1/21/14). He had also scored in double figures in 30 straight games he had played prior to tonight.

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Sacramento Kings (15-25) at Houston Rockets (28-15)

Point Differential:

Sacramento: -1.9 (NBA rank: 18th)

Houston: +3.6 (NBA rank: 9th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Sacramento: 104.0 (T-12th)

Houston: 107.6 (4th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Sacramento: 106.1 (28th)

Houston: 102.4 (11th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Sacramento: 97.01 (13th)

Houston: 98.19 (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):

Sacramento: 49.1% (16th)

Houston: 53.0% (3rd)

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

Sacramento: 15.3 (T-13th)

Houston: 16.6 (27th)

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

Sacramento: 51.1% (11th); offensive rebound rate: 27.1% (T-9th); defensive rebound rate: 75.9% (T-6th)

Houston: 51.7% (7th); offensive rebound rate: 27.1% (T-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):

Sacramento: .307 (7th)

Houston: .400 (1st)

Might a dash of revenge and a heaping helping of road weariness be the right recipe for the Rockets to finally break through against the Sacramento Kings? That’s just one of the many questions to be answered tonight when these two clubs face off for the third time this season. This much, however, we already know: There is a roughly zero percent chance that the Rockets will overlook Sacramento – not after losing twice to the Kings last month, and certainly not after watching the way this northern California club has transformed itself in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade.

To be sure, there remains much more work to be done to return Sacramento – a franchise that has missed the playoffs each of the last seven years – to postseason play, especially given their residence in the loaded Western Conference, but the Kings finally seem to be on the right track and few teams can provide first person testimony to this new reality better, and more painfully, than can the Rockets. Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and company have twice earned wins at the Rockets’ expense this season so it should go without saying that the Kings will have Houston’s full, unadulterated attention tonight.  

Working in the Rockets’ favor is the fact that this evening’s contest represents the final stop on Sacramento’s six-game road trip that began eight days ago in Indiana. This will also be the Kings’ third game in four nights, though they certainly didn’t look too terribly fatigued while laying a 17-point beating on the beleaguered Pelicans last night in New Orleans.

Regardless, this is not only a game the Rockets should win, but one they must (to the extent that such things as must-wins even exist in mid-January, of course). With the rest of this month’s schedule set aside for Southwest Division showdowns – the Rockets next play Memphis twice, then Dallas and San Antonio – Houston can ill afford to fall to Sacramento for a third time. Sure, the Kings are both dangerous and improved, but the fact of the matter is that they still sit very near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Given the Rockets’ relatively lofty place in that hierarchy, then, it’s high time they offer a firm reminder as to the very real reasons behind the disparity that exists between themselves and tonight’s opponent.

Know Thy Enemy

- What a difference a change of scenery has made regarding both the production and narrative of Rudy Gay. The first time the 8th-year swingman faced Houston this season, he scored 29 points but required a whopping and wholly inefficient 37 shots to reach that total in a performance that largely summed up his brief tenure with the Raptors. In Sacramento, however, Gay has been reborn, using a smaller number of his team’s possessions while doing so in a vastly more effective manner thanks in large part to the remarkable uptick in his accuracy from the field. Gay has hit better than 52 percent of his shots since joining the Kings; this after connecting at a career-low rate (38.8 percent) during his stint in Toronto this season.

And Sacramento’s prized midseason acquisition has been nothing short of superb this month, averaging 22 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game while shooting a stunning 57 percent from the field and nearly 52 percent from beyond the arc. Of course, those numbers received a nice boost last night when Gay tied his career-high by scoring 41 points against the Pelicans and connecting on five of his eight 3-point attempts.

Put simply, this has been one of the best stretches of Gay’s career and his current PER of 20.8 with the Kings would soundly trump any number he’s ever posted in that category.

Oh, and lest anyone required a reminder, the Rockets have acutely felt the pain inflicted by the spike in Gay’s overall level of performance as well; in his two games against Houston while wearing a Kings jersey, the University of Connecticut product has averaged 25.5 points per game and shot 49 percent from the floor.

- As one might expect upon reading the preceding treatise on Gay’s play with the Kings, Sacramento’s offense has been humming along quite nicely since his arrival. The Kings are scoring at a clip of 107.7 points per 100 possessions with their new acquisition on the floor – a rate roughly equal to the Rockets’ highly explosive and fourth-ranked offense.

Unfortunately for Sacramento, there’s been no such transformation on the other end of the floor. In fact, the Kings’ defense, already more myth than reality, has continued to evaporate into the ether for pronounced and prolonged periods of time. Sacramento has posted a defensive rating of 107.1 since acquiring Gay and that mark plummets to the disturbing depths of 108.2 – a figure that would be dead last in the league – when he is on the floor.

The Kings’ D springs leaks all over the place, but it’s been especially generous against spot-ups and in transition where Sacramento ranks 28th and 30th, respectively, according to Synergy Sports. Kings opponents are knocking down 3s at a league-high rate of 38.8 percent and though Sacramento concedes fewer restricted area shots per game than does any other team in the league, only the Timberwolves allow a higher percentage of makes in that highly-coveted area.

In sum: While slowing Sacramento’s Gay-infused offense poses a particularly problematic riddle for the Rockets to solve, scoring against the Kings’ porous defense does not.

- There is one caveat to the preceding bullet point, however: Sacramento’s current starting lineup featuring the likes of Gay, Cousins, Jason Thompson, Marcus Thornton and Isaiah Thomas has posted some eye-opening numbers while playing together. In 160 minutes of shared floor time, that quintet owns an offensive rating of 110.7 and a similarly remarkable defensive mark of 92.6. The sample size is still smallish as far as these things go, but such sparkling numbers demand monitoring going forward.

- Now for a few words about the rapidly ascendant Cousins. The first term to come to mind: Wow. The 23-year-old has blossomed in a big way this season, as seen by the fact he currently ranks fifth overall in the NBA in PER (26.6); having done so while simultaneously sporting the highest usage rate in the entire league – a statistical category that is typically dominated by point guards and dominant wing players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He’s also riding a 15-game double-double streak – the longest of its kind since a fellow by the name of Dwight Howard ripped off a 33-game double-double stretch during the 2011-12 season.

What Cousins is doing on the offensive end of the floor this year is incredible, as is this fact: If you only count Rudy Gay’s time with the Kings (which is cheating, but still), right now Sacramento would boast three players who reside in the league’s top-25 in PER (Thomas is the other Kings player who rounds out that theoretical triumvirate).

In the spotlight

Amid all this talk of Sacramento’s residence in the upper reaches of the offensive atmosphere, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Houston’s point producing capability has been out of this world of late as well, especially in the first half of games. Over their last three contests, the Rockets’ first half numbers are just plan silly: 68.7 points on 57.6 percent shooting which includes a 54.5 percent (8-of-14.7) hit rate from beyond the arc. Houston’s offense has been the best in the league in the first half of games this season, compiling an offensive rating of 110.0 during that time. It will be fascinating, then, to see how the Rockets respond this evening upon reacquainting themselves with a Sacramento defense that is in a giving mood far more often than not.

Injury Update

Terrence Jones (thigh) will be a game-time decision. Francisco Garcia (knee tendinitis), Greg Smith (knee) and Omer Asik (knee) are out.

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