The Gift That Keeps On Giving
HOUSTON - It’s a beautiful thing to see a team come together, gelling and coalescing on the big stage before a national TV audience.
But to do it on Christmas day, capping off a week of spectacularly dominating performances so one-sided that the collective plausibility of those events begins to defy belief? That seems like a wish that even Santa might have trouble granting.
Yet that’s precisely what the Rockets accomplished in Chicago Tuesday night while coasting to their fourth consecutive blowout victory. Houston’s starters were electric during the club’s 120-97 win, with four of the five recording at least 20 points on the evening. The Rockets’ lead grew as large as 35 at one point and the team made Chicago’s fourth-ranked defense appear to be little more than a speed bump as the Rockets repeatedly beat the Bulls down the floor in transition while racking up a 31-8 edge in fast break points and a 66-32 advantage in points in the paint.
Houston’s performance was nothing less than complete and utter dominance – a feeling the Rockets have become quite familiar with during a win streak that has seen the club average a margin of victory of better than 20 points per game.
“Our guys are starting to feel better about the style we’re playing,” said Houston head coach Kevin McHale, “and I think they’re getting comfortable pushing it and getting the ball moving side to side and doing what we do. We’ve just got to keep improving. We’re still a very young team and have a lot of ways to improve and hopefully we will.”
If true, that last statement surely must provoke some feelings of panic from the teams preparing to face Houston given the havoc the Rockets have wreaked over the course of the past eight days. Houston has, quite literally, raced past the competition during that stretch, using its unrelenting pace to punish the teams lacking the will or ability to keep up. And it’s not as if the Rockets are simply padding their stats against the league’s flotsam and jetsam; three of the four clubs Houston has defeated during its current run would be firmly in the playoffs if the season ended today and the fourth, Philadelphia, is a mere game-and-a-half outside the Eastern Conference’s top-eight.
But let’s be real – no one who’s spent quality time watching the Rockets of late should require any convincing that this team is anything short of a handful right now. Houston’s ultra-aggressive attacking offense is absolutely steamrolling opponents right now – the Rockets have scored at least 120 points in each of their past three games – with its backcourt of Jeremy Lin and James Harden now consistently clicking at a level the club had not seen much of through the first quarter of the season. But with Harden seemingly getting into the paint at will and Lin’s devastating first step – which now seems to be most, if not all the way, back – helping him do the same, a comfort level appears to have been reached that has elevated the collective play of both the duo and the team itself.
Not to be overlooked, however, are the subtle improvements the Rockets have recently made at the defensive end as well. There remains much work to do on that side of the ball to be sure, especially in the art of transition defense, but in the half-court Houston is beginning to more consistently lock-in and lock-down opponents; a significant step forward for this young team since more stops on D translates to an increase in transition opportunities at the other end. The anchor to it all: none other than Omer Asik, who absolutely crushed his former club in his Chicago return, racking up 20 points, 18 rebounds and 3 blocked shots while posting a staggering plus-minus of +41 during the Rockets’ latest rout.
““Having him on the floor is a game changer,” said Jeremy Lin after the game. “He is an incredible help- and individual defender. He's now getting to play heavy minutes and showing what he can do.”
Added McHale: “Omer is just a big time player in the middle. He was blocking shots, being big, rebounding, getting the outlet going, running and rolling behind.
“I thought our guys really ran hard, I thought we threw (the ball) ahead beautifully, guys made the extra play a lot. We got a big lead and got a little funky but as long as we keep moving the ball and keep on attacking, good things will usually happen for us.”
I thought we did a really good job of getting three and four and five stops in a row, and then getting three or four really hard pushes in a row which is really big for us. I thought our guys really ran hard, I thought we threw (the ball) ahead beautifully, guys made the extra play a lot. We got a big lead and got a little funky but as long as we keep moving the ball and keep on attacking, good things will usually happen for us.
Omer was very good for us tonight needless to say – he had 20 and 18. We made some shots but we had good movement. If you can move your bodies and the ball, it’s hard for the defense to get locked in all the time and that’s kind of what we have to do: we have to attack before the defense gets locked in and before they can take away a lot of options, and play with a lot of space on the floor and more movement.
Our guys are starting to feel better about the style we’re playing and I think they’re getting comfortable pushing it and getting the ball moving side to side and doing what we do. We’ve just got to keep improving. We’re still a very young team and have a lot of ways to improve and hopefully we will.
Omer is just a big time player in the middle. He was blocking shots, being big, rebounding, getting the outlet going, running and rolling behind. Omer has done a really good job the last few weeks, really trying to tuck in, set wide picks, get behind the defense and let the guys make plays for him. And when he does that, he’s finishing with some slam dunks and finishing around the basket. And I thought our wing guys moved the ball well and gave him good opportunities where he can catch and finish.
James, when he starts playing downhill from the other side of half court and he just starts dribbling, and there’s no bigs down there, they’re just running alongside him, he’s really good. He just puts so much pressure on the defender and he just keeps coming at you. He’s got the weave going and then when he stops and makes that final move there’s a lot of power, a lot of strength and just a tremendous finisher. When he’s playing like that it’s just a lot of trouble for people out there. I would hate to be at the end of that rundown because it’s hard to guard him.
That was really impressive. We just wanted to come out and really emphasize help-side defense and just creating a tight shell and make them beat us with long shots. I thought we executed that great. Omer was unbelievable on the boards and I think all around we just played so unselfish and moved the ball, ran transition and doing all the things we’ve been doing to have success.
I’m happy for (Asik). Our best offense is our defense. We’ve got a great defensive team and we pride ourselves on that side of the floor. When we get stops like that, we’re tough to guard on the opposite end; we can get out for spot-ups 3s and let James penetrate and it all starts with (Asik) getting those rebounds for us.
On their defensive play:
“The first two-and-a-half quarters we did good getting stops. Then, we let Nate Robinson kind of go off on us. It is a good example of what we can do and we did a good job on the boards. Omer was a key to that and we tried to get out and run from there.”
On Omer's play:
“Having him on the floor is a game changer. He is an incredible help- and individual defender. He's now getting to play heavy minutes and showing what he can do. He has great hands that can also finish at the basket. He is a very large human being and tough to stop. My first week of training camp I saw and knew he had potential. People his size can't usually do what he does with his passing and catching the ball. He has great hands.”
Is it an issue with the team not getting back defensively?
“They completely outplayed us from the start. My job is to have them ready. Obviously we were not ready. That part is on me.”
Your team has bounced back from tough losses:
“We knew they were offensively powerful. The thing is we had a bad 4th quarter in NY, we had a bad performance in Atlanta and we followed it up today. Things can change very quickly in this league. If you are not right and don't have an edge, you are not going to win without playing without the right amount of intensity. That part is on me. Having them ready and playing hard, I have to have them ready. If you don't play with an edge, that is a heck of an offensive team. In the last 3 games, they have put up 120 points. Obviously, we did not understand and I did not do enough of a job of delivering the message of what we were going to have to do to be successful. We did not control the ball, we did not get back, we did not make multiple efforts and we had low energy on offense. When you do that, you are not going to win. We have to get that corrected.”
Energy better off the bench?
“I thought Nate and Marquis gave us some juice. Defensively, it was a problem throughout. We cannot pick and choose when we are going to play. We have to play 48 minutes a game and right now we are not close to that. If we are trying to outscore people, we have the wrong mindset right now. You have to fight for the ball, right now we're not doing that. We are not quick to the ball, we have to correct that.”